The year 2018 was one to remember in New Mexico, but not necessarily in a good way. According to data from over 3,000 weather stations nationwide, the Land of Enchantment had the largest departure from normal temperatures among all 50 states.
Where I live, in the northern part of the state among the southern-most ranges of the Rocky Mountains, was also one of the parts of the state where this deviation from the average was most severe, according to maps created from the data by climatologist and fellow Forbes contributor Brian Brettschneider:
2018 temperature departure from normal for the U.S. based on 3,181 stations. Map shows standardized anomalies from the 1981-2010 normal period (standard deviations from normal). @AlaskaWx @IARC_Alaska pic.twitter.com/tTb17Nq6cM
— Brian Brettschneider (@Climatologist49) January 3, 2019
Climate researchers tell us that the past year is potentially a taste of what’s to come, as much of the southwest may face a decades-long megadrought at some point this century. It was hot and dry for several months, leading to fires and floods when rains finally fell.
Last January I rode my bike on National Forest trails that would typically be buried under snow (as they are right now, fortunately) and observed a small fire among the pines from a distance. It was a burgeoning ritual that I would repeat a few more times before the monsoon rains thankfully arrived in the summer. One fire seemed to blow up quite literally from nothing as a few friends and I rode to the trailhead and up a hillside where I captured this apocalyptic view:
This was the Sardinas Canyon Fire, a relatively minor wildfire by 2018 standards that burned a few thousand acres of mostly rugged National Forest land south of Taos. This view was about as good as it got at the time, because all Carson National Forest lands in the area were already closed to the public at the time. That’s well over a million acres of public lands used for grazing, recreation, hunting and fishing and a variety of other traditional uses that were off limits for weeks this year.
On the other side of the forest from where I live, a much larger fire had threatened the small prairie town of Cimarron and burned through the famous Philmont Boy Scout Camp. All of this, of course, would pale in comparison to the wind-driven fires that would later ravage more populated areas in California.
The closure of the forest and the fires that were spurred by the warmth and drought were preceded by a nearly snow-less winter that took a toll on the tourism-based economy of northern New Mexico, which counts several ski areas among its central draws.
A new lift put in just a few years ago to serve the highest terrain at Taos Ski Valley barely operated at all in 2018, although it should be noted that New Year’s Eve did bring a wintry blast and a few feet of snow to close out the year this week.
Of course, little snow in the high country means less water flowing to the valleys and the state’s mother river, the Rio Grande.
In 2018, the state was shocked by how early and how far north the great river ran dry. By May, the waters were scarcely able to feed irrigation systems dependent upon it just to the south of Albuquerque.
The oldest river water gauge in the nation, on the banks of the Rio Grande not far from where I live, recorded its lowest flows in over 135 years of operation in 2018, leading an editorial in the New York Times to declare that the “Rio Grande is Dying.”
The low flows turned the river a sickly yellow color for a while in June for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, but made rafting even more unappealing than it already was.
At one point my family made a trip to a freshwater spring located just a short distance above the banks of the Rio Grande and were startled by how much stronger the relatively unknown spring seemed to flow compared to the normally mighty river below it.
The heat and dryness was a frequent topic of conversation, as were concerns about wells drying up and hushed suggestions that it might soon be time to move further north.
When rain finally came, the drought and fire-stricken landscape struggled to welcome the monsoon moisture, and there were shockingly epic flash floods, adding further insult to injury.
Right now at my home in Taos it is cold and there is a foot of snow on the ground. Neither has ever felt so good, but it feels like mere temporary relief before the trend continues in years to come.