This last year was the dustiest in history throughout the Colorado Plateau region. That might be a fun statistic if it were a fluke, but it's not. It's just another real-world, close-to-home reminder of the impact that global warming is wielding on the ecosystems we rely on to survive.
According to Northern Arizona University's Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, the last five years have also been among the hottest on record in the Southwest, where warming is occurring faster than anywhere else in the country. And the U.S. Geological Survey was warning as far back as 2006 that the drought conditions seen on Navajo Nation land may have been the worst of all droughts experienced in the last 100 years. What that means for the people who live in this region is a threat to a way of life that has been developed over many years to be in concert with and sensitive to the surrounding ecosystem.
One-third of Navajo Nation land is covered in sand dunes, and traditionally, enough rain falls during an average year to transform those dunes and allow for adequate grazing for sheep and cattle. But Indian Country Today reports that with every 1.8 degrees of temperature increase comes the evaporation of about two inches of water, according to Margaret Hiza Redsteer, project chief of the Navajo Land Use Planning Project Redsteer.??
That, in turn, allows tumbleweeds and invasive plants with a shallow root system to move in, crowding out the more deeply-rooted native plants, which then deprives animals and people, who have normally depended on those plants, of a reliable food supply.
Increasing surface winds also cause changes in the ecosystem, and the lack of vegetation that once anchored the soil now lets sand roam free.
Entire sand dunes can be moved, causing all sorts of damage to communities and infrastructure. Virgil Nez, the son of a Navajo medicine man, said recently, "We've gone through droughts before, but never dust storms like this. It's tearing off roofs, it's sandblasting exterior walls. Today it blew off the top of my dad's sheep corral and the barn... This never happened in my lifetime. It gets worse every year."?
So while some are still debating the existence of global warming, those most vulnerable to its effects are suffering and facing more threats because of it year after year. Maybe Glenn Beck would stop denying climate change if he kept a sheep corral and had its roof blown off.
Watch the Focus Earth Episode: Climate Change and the Weather