The Climate Crisis Is Changing New Mexico's Fall Season

Sep 22, 2021


The fall season is a time of pride for many New Mexicans – hot air balloons fill the early morning skies, the smell of green chile slowly turning in roasters is on every corner, and many travel from all sorts of places to see the state’s beautiful fall colors. 

But, this year has shown the climate is changing. Fast. And that fall landscape we are so used to seeing? It’s changing too.

  

KSFR’s Bryce Dix reports. 

Picture this: I’m taking my usual morning run through the Bosque, along the Rio Grande river. It’s warm. And, come to think of it, I don’t remember it being THIS warm last year. But, I shake off the thought and sneak a glance upwards. I started to notice the canopy of cottonwood trees far above my head. It took a second. But… Ah! I figured out what was different. The leaves. They’re starting to turn from their usual green into more of a yellow – a sign that it’s turning fall! 

I take a turn on the winding dirt trail and catch glimpses of the river through some bushes, and I stop in my tracks. 

“I’m looking over the Rio Grande and man, the water is so low. It’s unbelievable.” 

I decided to go on further down the trail to check out how the river looked downstream. And, as it turns out, it wasn’t any better there. 

“Okay. About .9 miles into the run and man... This is really where you can really see the drought along the Rio Grande. Actually, looking out, the mud is starting to harden from the sunlight and the heat. It almost looks like dry skin that you’ve sunburnt.” 

“There are some other areas that are darker. There’s obviously mud there, but it’s cracked,  almost like dragon scales. And there’s no water here. I mean, there’s a small stream of water on the other bank. It’s about… I don’t know… 100 yards? It’s just really sad. You can tell people have been taking their dogs. I can see some paw prints and some shoe prints.” 

 

 

What I saw on my run is not news to many. Our climate is, without a doubt, rapidly changing. 

Just here in New Mexico alone, our weekly temperatures are consistently soaring above what’s normally expected on a yearly basis. Pair that with some sort of drought status in much of the state and smoke from wildfires, we’re no longer speculating about the effects of climate change – It’s here.

And for some scientists, these effects of climate change are currently changing our forests and their behavior in ways we don’t understand. 

“Fall is the least understood of the seasons in terms of what determines when leaves fall and how fast they fall, Neufeld said. “But, this is important because the CO2 levels are going up and climate change, as it’s getting warmer, as we’re getting these intense storms followed by intense periods of drought.” 

“There’s big questions: What does this do to the forests and trees? Does it make the growing season longer so that fall colors appear later in the fall? Or do the fall colors appear at the same time, they’re just not as colorful?” 

That’s Howard Neufeld – he’s a biology professor who studies the effects of air pollution on plant life with Appalachian State University in the hills of North Carolina. 

He actually runs a Facebook page where he dubs himself as the “Fall Color Guy.” There, Neufeld posts weekly updates on his fall color observations throughout the season. He tells me that the weather plays a major role in predicting how good or bad a fall color season will be. 

“So, people start asking me, sometimes in June: ‘How’re the fall colors going to be this year?’ And I say, well… Fall colors depend on the weather. And you can’t predict the weather more than 7 days in advance. So, ask me in September!”

It turns out that the month of September, and specifically it’s weather, holds the key in predicting these leaf colors.

“If it’s warm throughout September, or if it’s rainy and warm, you’re going to get duller colors, particularly the red,” Neufeld said. “And it’s going to delay the fall colors.” 

 

 

According to this fall foliage map on smokeymountains.com, New Mexico should start seeing peak fall color beginning on October 4th. But, Howard Neufeld says to take these predictions with a grain of salt.
Credit Smokeymountains.com

  

There are other factors to keep in mind when leaves fall to the forest floor. Like, some trees respond to the amount of daylight to determine when to let go of their leaves. But others use a combination of both temperature and daylight – and this is where scientists are starting to see issues. 

“It’s what I call ‘desynchronization.’ Instead of all the trees peaking at once, you get some early, some in the middle and some at the end [of the fall season]. It ends up being not as spectacular in our fall color season because you’ve spread it out and some of the trees already are leafless and others are peak color, Neufeld said.” 

Neufeld predicts that this fall’s color might not be so good for New Mexico. This September, our temperatures were high, precipitation was low, and drought was plaguing the state. What I saw on my run is also happening in other places. And that, Neufeld said, is why we’re also seeing aspen tree “dieback” or the above-ground death of aspens because of rising heat and lack of water. 

So, maybe researching why the color of fall leaves are actively changing might seem small in comparison to the larger effects of climate change. But– 

“It helps us understand why climate change is going to affect our forests in the future,” Neufeld said. “The other reason why there are so many fall color pages out there and why so many people are interested in it is that it’s hugely important economically. If you look at the states that tout their fall color – which is essentially every state in the United States – but it’s a lot of these mom and pop stores, hotels, gas stations, and restaurants… They make their yearly profit during the fall color season.” 

Not only are the forests changing behaviors, but animals might disappear entirely as well.    

As fall creeps in, many birds make their yearly migrations from the north and into New Mexico and other “southern” states in late October – including the infamous sandhill crane. 

The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico is the first place every New Mexican will point to as where you can find thousands of these cranes and various species of geese in the fall time. And wildlife advocates are worried drought in the Southwest may decimate entire populations of these birds. 

“Close to two-thirds of North American bird species would be at risk of extinction by the end of the century under a 3℃ warming scenario, which is a worst case scenario based on projections,” Hayes said. “But, it’s becoming more and more likely as we fail to act on climate.” 

That’s Jonathan Hayes. He’s the Vice President of the Audubon Society, an advocacy organization centered around protecting birds and their habitats. Hayes said that the “range” or geographic area that sandhill cranes can live is projected to worsen by a warming climate, loss of habitat, and other factors.

“For a bird like the sandhill crane, which is dependent on the whole middle Rio Grande maintaining a functioning ecosystem, it’s not that easy to just plop that down 50 miles north of here...That’s a different river than we have down there at the middle Rio. Whether that will provide suitable habitat is unlikely.”

 

This map shows the sandhill crane's projected decline in range for the summer season under a 3 degree celsius warming scenario.
Credit Audubon Society Southwest

  

“It isn’t as simple as: what we lose here and what we gain over here. It’s probably: what we lose here, we might just lose for good. What we’ll see is declining populations of those birds because there’s less available to them.” 

Scientists refer to New Mexico’s Rio Grande as the  “ribbon of life,” because the rivers and lakes of the state make up a mere .002 percent of the area but they account for more than 50 percent of the bird species. That means these birds almost entirely depend on our rivers to make their migratory journey successful – specifically the Rio Grande. 

But, Hayes tells me climate change is so much bigger than you or I. 

The actions we make in our personal lives like making the switch to electric cars, using paper straws, or growing our own vegetables... Those are mere drops in the bucket in preventing our world from warming and drying up our rivers in the Southwest. Really, Hayes says, it’s our state legislators and Governor that have a responsibility on their shoulders to act now, or the landscape of New Mexico will start changing.

“Some of the most basic ideas about what it means to live in New Mexico, live in the southwest are subject to change,” Hayes said. “Whether it’s the summer monsoon seasons that we all love and they’re such a refresher. Under a changing climate, we don’t know what that’s going to look like."

“These things that are a part of our day-to-day life – it’s easy to compartmentalize climate change and not think about it. The absolute truths in this world, like birds coming home to roost, should scare everybody.”

 

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Visit the 2021 fall foliage prediction map