The American West went through #climate hell in 2021. But there’s still hope — The Los Angeles Times

Firefighter Lindsay Freitag sprays down a giant sequoia along the Trail of 100 Giants to extinguish heat.(Garrett Dickman / National Park Service)

From The Los Angeles Times (Sammy Roth, Tony Barboza, Anita Chabria, Ian James, Anna M. Phillips, Lila Seidman, Hayley Smith, Alex Wigglesworth and Rosanna Xia):

To visualize the hellishness of the climate crisis in 2021, look no further than General Sherman, the world’s largest tree, wrapped in fire-resistant foil to protect the legendary giant sequoia from flames burning a path of destruction through the Sierra Nevada.

California’s so-called Ancient Ones evolved with fire. It’s crucial to their reproductive cycle. But they aren’t prepared for blazes like those of the last year, which are burning hotter and more intensely as Earth warms, mostly because of the combustion of fossil fuels. Last year, flames killed roughly 10% of the world’s giant sequoias.

The General Sherman sequoia tree is wrapped in fire-resistant foil to protect it from the KNP Complex fire. (National Park Service)

The sight of General Sherman wrapped in foil this fall was a cry for help. It was also a sign that the American West has entered a dangerous new era of hotter heat waves, ever-more-brutal droughts and a growing threat of violent extremism on public lands.

There’s still hope for the future. But in a part of the country mythologized for its rugged individualism, going it alone will be a recipe for disaster, climate experts say. States and tribes, big cities and rural towns, liberals and conservatives alike will need to cooperate…

Though climate continued to polarize Washington, D.C. — see the near total lack of Republican support for the clean energy investments proposed by President Biden — there were at least some encouraging signs west of the 100th meridian.

Take the Colorado River and its tributaries, whose waters quench the thirst of tens of millions of people and irrigate millions of acres of farmland from Wyoming to Mexico…

West Drought Monitor map November 30. 2021.

The region has always whipsawed between drought and floods, but now global warming is exacerbating the swings, with an overall drying trend that scientists call aridification. As summer turned to fall, nearly 95% of the American West was saddled with drought conditions. The “bathtub ring” at Lake Mead outside Las Vegas kept growing, showing how much water had vanished from the nation’s largest reservoir…

In August, federal officials declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado, triggering cutbacks in Arizona, Nevada and Mexico.

The shortage declaration, while scary-sounding, was the result of a landmark pact in which Southwestern states agreed to forgo some of the water to which they’d otherwise be entitled, in an effort to keep Lake Mead from falling even farther and prompting a true emergency.

If the situation worsens, California will accept cutbacks too. John Fleck, a water resources professor at the University of New Mexico, has described the agreement as a model for the future cooperation that will be needed as the Colorado dwindles.

“The river’s future is not all dark,” Fleck and Eric Kuhn wrote. “Innovation, cooperation and an expanded reliance on science are now the foundation for basin-wide solutions.”

There were signs of long-overdue action on the wildfire side of the climate equation too, as the Biden administration raised pay for federal firefighters and worked with California to reduce fire risk by thinning overgrown forests — a stark change in approach from President Trump, who bluntly blamed the Golden State for not “raking” its forests. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $15-billion climate package that included money to fight fires, droughts, extreme heat and sea level rise.

Officials also increasingly agreed on the need to set intentional, low-intensity fires — known as “prescribed burns” — of the type that helped protect Lake Tahoe this summer…

Record temperatures compounded the threat, drying out landscapes and making fires harder to put out. California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah endured their hottest summers on record, with the nation as a whole tying the Dust Bowl for the hottest summer in modern history.

In the Pacific Northwest, a heat wave killed hundreds of people, whose bodies failed them as they roasted in their homes, or on the streets — a dark reminder that heat waves are deadlier than hurricanes and fires, and are only getting more dangerous…

The combination of heat, fire and drought wreaked havoc on the electric grid. A blaze in Oregon took down an interstate power line and nearly forced much of California into rolling blackouts…

Declining reservoirs, meanwhile, produced less hydroelectricity, which in a cruel twist forced utilities to burn more natural gas, one of the fossil fuels heating the planet.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with
@GreatLakesPeck.

Federal officials warned that by 2023, there’s a 1 in 3 chance that Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border will fall so low that Glen Canyon Dam, one of the region’s largest producers of cheap, zero-emission power, won’t be able to generate electricity at all…

Though some Western states at least tried to follow California’s lead on climate — Colorado, Oregon and Washington in particular — others followed a different playbook…

In Arizona, regulators backtracked on a plan to require 100% clean energy, only to backtrack again and offer a preliminary sign-off — but with a deadline of 2070, decades beyond what global climate commitments will require. New Mexico’s Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, talked a big game on climate but also criticized President Biden for attempting to limit oil and gas production. Wyoming lawmakers kept up a years-long effort to protect the state’s coal, oil and gas companies from economic headwinds.

Then there was Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who responded to worsening drought by declaring a need for “divine intervention” and asking Utahns to pray for rain.

The same worldview that led some elected officials to dismiss the urgency of the climate crisis fueled a burgeoning movement that protested pandemic-era vaccine mandates, demonized public health officers and sought to wrest control of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands from the federal government…

Rising demand for sprawling solar and wind farms created new pressure on public lands, forcing the Biden administration to balance the needs of conservation and climate action…

Rising temperatures threatened iconic species, with a federal judge ordering the Biden administration to reconsider its decision not to protect Joshua trees under the Endangered Species Act.

Coastlines weren’t spared, either: The Pacific Ocean kept rising, hastening a reality of vanishing beaches, dangerously eroding cliffs and saltwater intruding on precious groundwater supplies. Nobody wanted to confront the possibility of “managed retreat,” but some communities finally felt they had no choice. Marine heat waves took a deadly toll on ocean ecosystems already stressed by a history of overfishing and pollution…

Environmental activists rallied around the idea of “30 by 30,” a campaign to protect 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030. The goal is to protect habitat, promote biodiversity, preserve landscapes that keep carbon in the ground and otherwise save some semblance of the natural world as we know it. Biden endorsed the concept…

In one positive development, firefighters managed to protect General Sherman and other iconic sequoias from this fall’s fires.

But thousands of the giants were still killed by flames. And the climate emergency is just getting started. 2021 will probably go down as one of the coolest years this young century. There’s still plenty of time for the rest of the Ancient Ones to meet their match.

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