The morning after a good desert rain, when the low winter sun pierces the remnant clouds and warms the saturated soil, you can see the steamy breath of the Earth exhale into the humid air.
In my backyard, barren just a few weeks ago, a fresh veneer of tiny seedlings glistens with dew each morning. Seemingly convinced that this winter's rains are for real, innumerable seeds have rolled the biological dice and committed to expending the energy sequestered within them. The bet is that the abundant moisture will persist long enough that they might rise up, bloom and, despite a very late start, put down seed for future generations before the return of withering heat.
Hopefully, that bet will pay off, and you certainly can't blame the seeds for taking it. Lifelong weather nerds like me probably pay more attention to this stuff than anyone whose title doesn't end in "-ologist," but the meteorological events of this past month have been hard for anyone to ignore. Officially, Tucson was drenched with nearly three inches of rain in just a few weeks, leaving us at double the average rainfall for this point in the year. The storm system that raged through Arizona around Jan. 21 was one of the most intense ever to hit the state, producing hurricane-force winds, the first tornado watch in memory and some of the lowest barometric pressure readings ever recorded here. A Salt River Project official said that the storm threw down more moisture on the Salt and Verde River watersheds than any other on record, and even the dusty Santa Cruz and Rillito flowed for days. It is safe to say that this year's El Niño has not been a bust.
Duly noted, but you don't have to look back very far or search very wide to determine that the recent bluster is really just a splash in a very dry bucket. Counting back to the first of October (the beginning of the water year as measured by people who get paid to measure such things), we're still at only 75 percent of normal precipitation in Tucson. Last year was the fourth-driest ever recorded here, with less than half of normal rainfall. Moreover, our single soggy month comes on the heels of our driest and warmest decade ever, one that ended with a cumulative rainfall deficit of more than 30 inches.
If the amateur math doesn't give you pause, consider the professional version. Scientists who measure the weather tell us that, with increasing frequency, things are happening that have never happened in 125 years. Scientists who measure tree rings tell us that our climate is experiencing shifts on the order of centuries and millennia. Scientists who measure ice cores at the poles of our planet tell us that we are distorting the composition of the Earth's atmosphere in ways that have not occurred in hundreds of thousands of years. There is no doubt: Our climate is undergoing an epochal change.
Alas, science no longer has much traction with a cynical American public. It's easier to believe the naysayers who want to pretend that a month of rain, or a couple of blizzards, or even a record-breaking Washington, D.C., winter somehow disproves the fundamental paradigm shift at work. What the willfully benighted blowhards on Fox News and the petroleum pimps in the U.S. Congress are not talking about is the warmest January ever in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the serious challenge it has presented to the viability of this winter's Olympics. Nor do they acknowledge that for many years now, climate scientists have predicted increased storm intensity as a function of climate change, or that record-breaking snowfalls actually help prove the point. The naysayers prefer to ignore a vast body of evidence and a nearly universal scientific consensus and instead sensationalize isolated errors in data and minor disagreements among scientists regarding the precise details of the projected catastrophe.
But you needn't listen to my propaganda any more than theirs. Look it up for yourself—or just look around. Look at the vast stands of dead conifers at the tops of our mountains, massacred by beetles that no longer die off in mild winters and fried by infernos intensified by heat and drought. Look at our rivers and streams disappearing underground. Look at the trucked-in slush that is passing for snow at the Olympics.
And then look with me at the wisps of vapor escaping the sodden soil the day after a rain, and tell me why it's anything other than an ephemeral anomaly, a beautiful but tragic metaphor for an unfolding ecological disaster that threatens to wring the life out of our fair Earth.