‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Plants, Animals Share Similar Relationships To Climate Niches

It seems plants and animals should react differently to changes in their climate niches, the temperature and precipitation conditions under which they live.

After all, animals can move to find food, water or shade, while plants mostly must sit and take what comes.

But a new study of more than 2,000 plant and animal species in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests flora and fauna actually share similar responses.

Co-author John J. Wiens, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, said the results mirror current patterns caused by climate change.

“We’ve seen a pattern of local extinctions from the climate change that’s happened already, and the frequencies of local extinctions are actually similar for both plants and animals,” he said.

Wiens and his colleagues tested 10 predictions relating plants and animals to their climate niches.

Members of the 19 plant groups and 17 vertebrate groups followed similar patterns in all 10 cases.

A few examples: Plants and animals tolerate a similar range of conditions; they both adapt at similar rates to changes in their environments; and both can adjust much more quickly to cooler and wetter conditions than to heating or drying trends.

The findings suggest general rules of climatic-niche evolution might hold true for both flora and fauna.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Mystery Solved: Cloud Seeding Can Produce Snow

In the end, all it took was a combination of radars and snow gauges.

Scientists at the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Colorado, the University of Wyoming and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tried a new technique to measure cloud seeding in 2017: They left behind the precipitation gauges and statistical models that have been used in the past.

The end result was a critical research finding: On three occasions, injecting clouds with silver iodide generated significant precipitation, more than doubling the rate of snowfall that had been falling naturally.

“As a scientist, this is kind of what you live for,” said Sarah Tessendorf, a scientist at NCAR and co-author of a new paper about the research “You’re always trying to answer those unanswered questions.”

Cloud seeding is the deliberate injection of substances like silver iodide by airplane to create precipitation. The practice dates back to the 1940s when American chemist Vincent Schaefer used airplanes — and even cannons — to inject clouds with silver iodide or dry ice. While the industry around cloud seeding has existed for decades in the United States, the ability of science to verify results has been more ambiguous.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains that both the study design and technological advances in instruments are what allowed scientists to finally measure the results of cloud seeding.

Scientists flew an airplane that had high-resolution cloud radar that could see features in clouds that are undetectable to the naked eye. Scientists also positioned mobile Doppler radars on wheels that storm chasers use high in the mountains above basins to observe changes in weather.

“Having these mobile radars positioned up on top of mountain ridges to be able to see over the basins where we were targeting cloud seeding, we were able to get measurements that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” Tessendorf said.

The results are critical for Western states like Colorado which have seen more frequent and extreme drought. Tessendorf said the next step is potentially even more important: Scientists can figure out what conditions lead to the best cloud seeding opportunities. Then through the use of computer models, she and others can determine how cloud seeding might work in a hotter, drier climate in the west.

“So understanding that we can look at future climate projections and make some assessments about, ‘Is cloud seeding still going to even have the same opportunities … in that future climate?’” she said.

On Thin Ice In The Arctic: CU Scientist Says Melting May Threaten Parts Of Historic Mission

A University of Colorado scientist who spent months drifting through the Arctic Ocean on a ship says thinning and melting ice is putting the Arctic’s biggest scientific mission ever in jeopardy.

“We do have a lot of equipment out on the ice and the ice is very thin. So come next summer, when the ice starts to melt and melt ponds start to form, things could get very thin and I’m quite certain that some of our activities will be limited by that,” atmospheric scientist Matthew Shupe said.

Shupe is back in Colorado after several months aboard the Polarstern, a German ship that is moored to an ice floe drifting through the Arctic Ocean. The ship embarked in September and will be on the ice for a year.

Hundreds of scientists from around the world are participating in a $155 million project co-led by Shupe called MOSAiC, the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. They’re studying everything from the interaction of the atmosphere and the ocean — Shupe’s specialty — to the thousands of tiny plants and animals that live on the ice, in the water and on the seafloor. Researchers live aboard the Polarstern but leave it daily to conduct experiments and gather data from equipment at different sites on the ice floe.

Behold, the Polarstern. The ship is moored to an ice floe drifting through the Arctic Ocean. (Photo by Matthew Shupe)

Shupe was on the ship in September when it sailed from Norway to the Arctic Ocean, where the search began for an ice floe strong enough to serve as the Polarstern’s base — but all the ice they found was thinner and more fragile than expected, so they settled for the best they could get.

Because the floe they chose had a thick core, Shupe dubbed it the Fortress. But even it is unstable in places — during a brutal November storm, “a crack opened up actually right on my commute out to my research station…over the course of a few days, the crack widened and then came back together and then sheared sideways.”

The CU scientist’s team is headquartered near the Polarstern at a site called “Met City” and also has three remote stations. Its challenges aren’t just scientific — polar bears show up periodically, forcing a quick retreat back to the ship. At one point, a bear got into one of Shupe’s remote stations and damaged the equipment. Another time, the lights were out at a landing strip and, because the thin ice is drifting, the GPS didn’t work and it took awhile to figure out where to land.

Shupe and his team were on the ice in mid-December when he got another taste of its fragility.

He wrote about it in a blog post: “These dynamics must be a characteristic of the new Arctic, and apparently the Arctic really wants us to get a good feel for them. And it is literally a feel. Today, again, the ice was moving underfoot. As we walked on a bridge over a crack, the crack was widening. At another area, we hopped from ice chunk to ice chunk to get across. Pretty crazy really, although the hops were short and the small pieces were pretty stable.”

The melting ice will have direct impacts on human endeavors in that part of the world, he said. “The Arctic is opening up to resource development, to tourism, to cargo, transportation — so many other things that affect so many different types of people. We really need to understand the change that’s happening there so we can operate in the Arctic.”

From a scientific point of view though, the thin ice isn’t entirely a bad thing, he said.

“It’s not depressing at all. It’s a challenge. It’s more challenge than we anticipated but I view it is an opportunity because this is the Arctic now. This is what we’re there to study.”

The Dam Nobody Wants Just Won’t Go Away

Ventura, Calif.—It’s a flawless sunny day in Ventura, California. In the coastal city, north of Los Angeles, surfers bob on boards watching the swells for the ideal wave. If you want a long ride, here at Surfers’ Point, where the Ventura River meets the ocean, is the place you want to be. It’s a classic California point break that creates waves surfers gravitate to up and the down the coast.

It’s a favorite spot for Paul Jenkin, who’s been surfing this break for over 30 years. But today he’s not here waiting for the perfect wave; he’s waiting for a better beach—or at least the beach that used to be here.

Jenkin is the campaign coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on the protection and enhancement of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches. For 20 years he’s been working to restore the natural supply of sand and gravel to this cobbled beach that’s seen its parking lot and bike path crumble into the ocean. He says one of the concerns at Surfrider is that with sea level rise, recreational beaches are going to disappear. “We’re going to lose our surf spots and lose a place just to put a towel down on the sand.”

Rising sea levels along with coastal development are some of the threats to Surfers’ Point, but the real culprit is some 16 miles away in a mountain canyon far above the city—the Matilija Dam.

Matilija Dam

Matilija Dam was built in 1947, driven by farmers and ranchers in the nearby Ojai Valley, who wanted it for flood control and water supply. Peter Sheydeyi, deputy director of Ventura County Watershed Protection District, the agency that owns the dam, says Matilija originally had 7,000 acre-feet of storage. But over the last 70 years it has completely filled with sediment—some 8 million cubic yards of sand and gravel—enough to fill 800,000 dump trucks—that no longer flows to the beach.

Matilija Reservoir has filled with sediment, allowing grasses to grow on its surface. (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

Matilija Dam had bad juju right from the start. The Army Corps of Engineers warned the Ventura County Flood Control District not to build it, saying the surrounding steep landscape of coastal sage scrub and oak woodland was highly erodible and would fill the reservoir with sediment.

Then, during its construction, it was discovered the concrete used in the dam had a condition that would weaken over time. The original structure was 198 feet tall but was notched down in the 1960s and ’70s to 168 feet due to safety concerns. Those safety concerns continue to this day because this is California, where earthquakes are always a possibility. In 2018, Matilija Dam received a “poor” rating for seismic risk in a review by state’s Division of Safety of Dams (DSOD).

Lastly, before Matilija Dam was built, the Southern California steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) would come upriver to spawn. But because the fish can no longer migrate to their historic freshwater habitats to reproduce to maintain or grow their populations, the trout has been listed as endangered. Sheydeyi, who’s managing the Matilija Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project for the county says if the dam were removed it’s believed that a good population of the fish would return to the upstream watershed.

Cut Here to Empty Contents

Given the numerous downsides—impeded fish migration, beach erosion, and seismic risk—not to mention that it provides no water supply—Matilija Dam has been slated for removal, and among the graffiti painted all around the dam is a dashed line with a giant pair of scissors suggesting, “cut here” to empty its contents. The artwork has become iconic in the movement to remove obsolete dams and was featured in the documentary DamNation.

Matilija Dam (Photo by J. Clifton)

But unleashing sediment that’s accrued for over 70 years is not something you can do without a lot of planning, studies—and money. In 2000, Jenkin formed the Matilija Coalition to bring together the many non-governmental organizations interested in removing the dam, such as CalTrout and Friends of the River, two statewide organizations that were focused on restoring native steelhead. The outdoor retailer Patagonia, which is headquartered along the Ventura River in the city, has been a huge backer of the effort. Also, the Open Rivers Fund (a program of Resources Legacy Fund with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that aids local community efforts to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the western United States) stepped in to help.

And now—20 years, several studies, and over $20 million later—they might finally have a solution. The current proposal is to drill two 12-foot holes at the base of the dam, and then, during a moderately sized rain event open them up to flush the fine sediments downriver. The county would then—potentially the following summer—dismantle the dam once the pressure load was released. Of the 8 million cubic yards in the reservoir it’s estimated that only 2 million cubic yards would move downstream. The rest would be stabilized in place and be restored with native vegetation that would become a permanent part of the landscape. Sheydeyi hopes that after the dam is gone the area will be a recreational destination with trails, which will allow people “to enjoy the cool waters during the late summer months at Matilija Creek.”

But before the flushing event happens however, improvements downstream would be needed. It’s estimated that the river would rise two to six feet in elevation once the dam is removed, so that will require two new bridges and two new levees—something that will likely take at least a decade and somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 million to complete. Then, they wait for rain, which given California’s recent drought cycles could be a while.

A Lesson for Other Dams

What ultimately happens at Matilija might be a lesson for the hundreds of other California dams, sitting on creeks and streams that drain to the ocean. A study done by Cope M. Willis and Gary B. Griggs at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that statewide about 25 percent of sand that would have been delivered to the coast is now blocked by dams. In Southern California, where beaches are a huge part of the economy, it’s 50 percent.

All that trapped sediment also means reservoir capacity is shrinking. Toby Minear, a researcher at that Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, estimated in a 2009 paper that statewide, reservoirs have likely filled with 2.1 billion cubic meters of sediment, decreasing total reservoir capacity by 4.5 percent. About 200 reservoirs have likely lost more than half their initial capacity to sedimentation.

Climate Change

Surfers’ Point Bike Path, January 2019 (Photo by Paul Jenkin)

As the number of wildfires and extreme storms increase with climate change it will likely cause more sediment to move into reservoirs, further shrinking their capacity. Sediment transport in this fire-flood scenario is accelerated because burnt material is highly erodible and ready to be swept down hillsides with heavy rains. Sheydeyi says the 2017 Thomas Fire caused another influx of sediment and led to the growth bulrushes and grasses growing on the reservoir’s surface.

Phase 1 of the Managed Shoreline Retreat project at Surfers’ Point

The lack of sediment moving downriver combined with sea level rise will exacerbate problems already occurring along the coast such as flooding, cliff erosion, and threats to infrastructure. Beaches may seem static—that the sand just stays put—but it’s always in motion due to waves, wind, and tides. Winter waves have high energy that pulls sand offshore, making beaches narrower. In the summer, sand is carried back onto beaches, widening them again.

But this cycle only continues when there is a steady supply of sand. As sea levels rise a deficit of protective sand will expose cliffs and development to further erosion and flooding. Additionally, overbuilt shorelines mean that beaches lack the room to migrate inland to accommodate higher water. It’s in this context that, in 2011, a working group, including Surfrider, city planners, the California Coastal Conservancy, the State Coastal Commission, the Ventura County Fairgrounds, and others completed the first phase of what they call the first “managed shoreline retreat” project in the state of California, where infrastructure is moved back out of harm’s way in lieu of armoring the shore with seawalls and rock revetments.

In phase 1 of the Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat a 70- to 100-foot-wide stretch of sand dunes was engineered, underneath which rests an 8-foot-thick layer of imported river cobble. On the surface native plants and driftwood anchor the dunes in place. The project has gained recognition for coastal management in response to climate change, has been featured in numerous case studies, and serves as a model of sustainable shoreline management in the era of rising seas, according to the California Coastal Conservancy.

Surfers’ Point Managed Shoreline Retreat (Photo by Frani Halperin/H2O Media, Ltd.)

An Epic Ride

If the various stakeholders involved in the Matilija Dam removal are able to raise the needed funds, the necessary infrastructure is completed, and a series of drenching storms hit the area—just how much sand would replenish the beach?

Jenkin says the initial assessment was that around 30 percent more sediment would come out of the river during each storm event, but they are currently completing studies to confirm that estimate. The fly in the ointment, he says, is that when the project was built they were predicting perhaps a foot-and-a-half of sea level rise by 2100. Now that could happen within the next decade or so. “Once we get four to five feet of sea level rise the whole California coast is going to dramatically change,” he says, adding that the dunes they’re constructing “are perhaps just buying time.”

Until then, he’s looking forward to a different experience at Surfers’ Point once the dam is removed, noting aerial photos taken back in the 1960s show that after big storm events a large sandbar forms at the river’s mouth. So, he says brightly, “we would anticipate—hopefully—a couple of epic days out here.”

This is the second story in H2O Radio’s series about sedimentation. Listen to the first story: “Damned from the Start—Many U.S. Reservoirs Could Be Rendered Useless—And That Was Part of the Plan”

Inherit the World: Young Climate Activists Get Ready for Global Protest

TEMPE, Ariz. – Thousands of young people in Arizona are expected to strike Friday in defense of the planet. In Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, they plan to protest inaction on policies that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop the globe’s destructive rise in temperatures.

Earlier this month, students ranging from middle school to college undergraduates gathered for a climate summit at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus to prepare for Friday’s youth climate strike at the state Capitol and the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday in New York.

Covering Climate Now series

Paul Hirt, professor of history and sustainability at Arizona State University, gave the keynote address at the summit. In an interview later, he said many of the solutions for climate change must come in the policy arena.

“This is the world they are inheriting and they have, therefore, an extra right to be concerned, to speak out and ask for solutions,” he said.

The summit, Hirt said, is the most recent example of climate activism by young people, which has been ramping up over the past two years. He credits three factors: protests against gun violence in schools, which set a precedent for youth activism; the election of a climate-change denier as president; and the protests spurred by his election, including the 2017 Phoenix March for Science.

The Sept. 7 ASU climate summit was designed to help students learn different ways to engage in activism, with workshops on lobbying elected officials, public speaking, writing and civic engagement. It also featured a volunteer fair, connecting students with various environmental groups.

– Video by Jordan Evans/Cronkite News

Aditi Narayanan, Arizona Youth Climate Strike co-leader, said that it’s not only about affecting climate change but also showing young people how they can make a difference. The climate group, which is part of the national U.S. Youth Climate Strike, describes itself as a youth-led movement that advocates for climate action in the state.

Related story

Meet the Mountain West Teens Organizing the U.S. Youth Climate Strike

“I want them to acknowledge that no member of society is powerless. A lot of people will say, ‘You guys are just teens, you guys are so cute,’” Narayanan said. “I love how hard you are actually working, but I think we can actually affect actual change.”

In March, another youth climate strike took place across the country. Now, Brian Mecinas, another co-leader with Arizona Youth Climate Strike, wants accountability.

“We are here to do our best to hold elected officials accountable as well because we like to think that we are really uplifting other voices and making sure that opinions that are not normally expressed are expressed,” he said.

The summit was about sharing knowledge as much as acquiring it. Jackson Schiefelbein, a sustainability student at ASU, attended to share his experience with climate activism.

“Back when I was in high school, I created a youth activist platform in Ohio where I’m from, and I’m glad to be able to support other students here in Arizona who are doing the same thing,” he said.

Friday’s youth climate march, which is meant to send a message to state officials, begins at 2 p.m. at Maricopa County Courthouse and will proceed to the Arizona Capitol. The Facebook page of Arizona Youth Climate Strike, one of the organizers, said activists are “calling for the protection and restoration of 50% of the world’s lands and oceans, including a halt to all deforestation, by 2030.”

This march lines up with Hirt’s idea of how to bring about change.

“I think the key thing is to get organized, educated, and to come up with stories to tell about how climate change is affecting us all, and what the challenges for mitigating climate change is in the future,” he said. “Get people to focus on the next two, three or four generations that are really going to have to deal with the consequences of decisions that we make today.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Nature’s ASMR: How Deep Listening Could Help Save the Environment

PHOENIX – Saguaros and cardons tower against a soft gray sky as a family of quail tiptoes through the brush. Flowers glisten with raindrops. Under a tree, a man stands motionless. His eyes are closed, and he’s smiling softly.

Garth Paine is listening to Mother Nature.

Paine is an associate professor of digital sound and interactive media at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. He co-leads the Acoustic Ecology Lab, where he studies how sounds can help understand the environment and potentially help predict climate change.

At the Desert Botanical Garden, there are sounds of birds singing, critters tapping and insects chirping. There also are the sounds of cars zooming down Loop 202 and noise from airplanes overhead. These sounds all contribute to what Paine calls the sonic environment of the garden, which is in Papago Park.

Born in Sydney and raised in Tasmania, Paine is infatuated with sound. As a child, he said, he loved going into the wilderness by himself, whiling away the hours watching and listening to the world around him.

He later became a sound engineer for the national broadcasting network in Australia and started composing music with the sounds he recorded in nature.

“Throughout my life wherever I’ve gone in the world, I’ve made time to do field recordings to just kind of sit down, be still for a few hours and listen to the world,” Paine said.

His passion for environmental sounds inspired him to study them as a scientist.

“As somebody who goes out and listens to the environment on a very regular basis, I’ve heard changes in the environment and I’ve felt the changes in the sound quality because you literally feel them with the body, and I’ve been conscious that the acoustic ecology is changing.”

He’s now pioneering multiple projects to help communities understand their own environments through sound, and working to understand how sound could be a tool for predicting changes in the climate.

The Listen(n) Project

Paine spends a lot of time recording in Joshua Tree National Park in California, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and on other public lands, recording for his music and the Acoustic Ecology Lab.

“It struck me talking to people who live near those places that they were also very concerned about climate change and climate impact and they felt somehow disempowered because they were not in the cities, they couldn’t march in the marches,” he said. “They felt like there wasn’t a lot they could do.”

Thus the Listen(n) Project was born.

Six years ago, Paine and his team began holding listening and field-recording workshops and “soundwalks” in these communities. From those, he recruited a team of citizen scientists to record in the same location every month, and from this work he created the Listen(n) Project.

“That has really empowered people in those communities because they feel they have a role in the stewardship of those lands,” Paine said. “They’re much more conscious about then having something to say about that.”

Almost 50 citizen scientists contribute to Paine’s recordings.

“It’s spiritual. It’s science, and it’s a process of rehumanizing us in an overly technological society,” said Jennifer Kane, who has been a citizen scientist in Joshua Tree National Park since the Listen(n) Project began. Learning how to listen has empowered her understanding of the environment, she said.

This project is ongoing, and Paine and his team continue to conduct listening workshops and train citizen-scientists to contribute data to the EcoSonic Project.

-Video by Chloe Jones/Cronkite News

In field-recording workshops, citizen-scientists are trained to record the outdoors in surround sound. This data is contributed to the EcoSonic Project, and participants can use the recordings however they like. If time permits, Paine will add a workshop on composing music.

A Growing Database of Sound

Originally, the recordings from the Listen(n) Project were used only for music.

“I started to think about how we could use those recordings as a big data set to develop tools that would actually allow us to show transformation (of the ecology of an environment),” Paine said, “and if possible tools that will help use predict impact based solely on sound recordings.”

The EcoSonic Project began two years ago in collaboration with the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, which studies and supports the 30,000-acre McDowell Sonoran Preserve in northeast Scottsdale.

The purpose is to create a psychoacoustic model that can act as a baseline for environmental sound. What sets EcoSonic apart from other psychoacoustic studies is that it focuses on psychoacoustic properties of environmental sound. It looks at preferential sound qualities of natural environments, like reverberation from plants, and looks at ways to maintain these qualities in environments over time.

Paine defines psychoacoustics as the way sound is interpreted in the brain. The problem is that everyone’s brain perceives sound differently.

“Everything we hear is a construction, and this really comes to the core of the phenomenology and of psychoacoustics,” he said. And because everyone interprets sound uniquely, the challenge is measuring these subjective variables in an objective way.

Garth Paine studies the ecology of sound and how it helps us understand our environment. His work currently looks at the potential of sound to help predict climate change. (Photo by Chloe Jones/ Cronkite News)

Paine does this by analyzing sets of recordings, and he listens for various psychoacoustic properties, such as loudness, to create a model showing how these properties change based on, for example, the weather. To graph the data into a model, Paine fed the system information about psychoacoustics and the corresponding weather of those psychoacoustics when they were recorded.

“When I got the first graphing of that data, out of the model I was stunned because I was like, ‘Wow, it’s like so clear,’ like I had not for a second thought that the correlations were going to be so strong.”

To do the first predictions, Paine said, his team fed weather data in the model and asked what the psychoacoustics would be like the next day.

“The 24-hour trends were so close that I literally sat and stared at it for 10 minutes because I was like, this could actually be really powerful,” he said. “It was also a validation of what I’ve felt in my body for a long period of time being out in the world.”

Paine believes what he’s found is a connection between how changes in sound in everything from national parks to cities could be predictors of climate change. That change is heard before it’s seen, he said.

Paine hopes this model eventually will predict psychoacoustics of environments in the far future, and analyzing those sounds could provide information about the physical environment in that future.

A Link Between Sound and Climate

Sonic environments differ depending on the physical environment. A sound reverberates when it bounces off a surface and echoes to another location. Reverberation is more likely to occur off hard surfaces, so an urban environment with concrete and buildings will be much noisier than an environment with lush vegetation, which absorbs sound.

“One of the most exciting parts of what Garth is doing is that he is tapping into a part of the environment that we can’t sense,” said Sharon Hall, an ecosystem and urban ecologist at ASU. Animals, for example, are sensitive to sound and vibration, she said.

“What we don’t know yet is how the things that we’re doing in the environments – they could be slow kinds of changes, like climate change, or it could be kind of fast changes, like urban development,” she said.

But all of those changes, Hall said, will change the sonic environment “in ways that affect animals and even plants that we have no idea about now.”

In downtown Phoenix, for example, the soundscape is rich with noise of vehicles and the light rail; on First Fridays, add music and revelers. These sounds echo off structures to create a louder, busier sonic environment.

Natural sonic environments are more muted, with fewer human noises, and plants absorb a lot of sound. That’s why it’s important to listen.

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Paine said changes in sonic environments potentially could be heard years before corresponding physical changes are apparent.

“We hear things before we see them. … We hear the bird before we see it, but also actually we hear change before we see it,” he said. “Reduction in species count, we can hear that possibly a couple of years before we actually start to be able to count it in the behavior of the environment.”

With his work in the Listen(n) Project and EcoSonic Project, Paine is listening for sonic changes in environments, and hopes to see correspondence with physical changes, and while more time is needed to establish results, Paine said the results so far are promising.

The Power of Listening

Standing beneath a tree in the Desert Botanical Garden, Paine is tranquil.

“That plane is very obvious to us, right?” he asked, pointing to the sky. “The traffic on the freeway over there is also really clear, and what we can hear is that the plane masks the freeway.”

The plant life in the Desert Botanical Garden absorbs sound, Paine said, yet the reverberation from concrete can still be heard.

He talked about the difference between listening at the garden and listening in Joshua Tree before the sun rises, recounting how he lays on the earth there, completely still, completely present. With all of his attention directed toward his listening, Paine said he could hear tiny bat wings flutter, a woodpecker wake up and begin to steadily thrust its beak into wood.

“I like to say that listening makes the world remarkably richer. It really does.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Report: Phoenix, Tucson Among Fastest-Warming Cities in Nation Since 1970

WASHINGTON – Phoenix and Tucson were two of the fastest-warming cities in the nation over the last five decades, according to a Climate Central report based on government data.

The report looked at climate change for cities and states since the first Earth Day in 1970 and found increases in 98% of cities across the country, with four of the top five cities in the Southwest.

Tucson and Phoenix were among 10 cities that saw average annual temperatures rise more than 4 degrees over that time period, with Tucson’s increase of 4.48 degrees the third-biggest and Phoenix’s 4.35-degree rise good for fourth place.

Arizona State Climatologist Nancy Selover said the increase is even more striking at night, when she said temperatures have risen an average of 8 degrees. She and other experts attribute that in part to the fact that rapid urbanization of the desert cities has created “urban heat islands” that hold heat longer than they used to.

“If you go out 11 o’clock at night in the late spring or into the summer for sure, you’ll walk past a block wall and you will feel that heat radiating off that block wall,” Selover said. “It’ll be 2 o’clock in the morning and you’ll still be looking at temperatures in the upper 90s or the low 100s because it takes so long for that (surface) to cool.”

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The Climate Central report drew on data from the National Centers for Environmental Information to determine average temperature changes in 242 cities and every state but Hawaii. In addition to the 10 cities that saw a rise of 4 degrees or more, 59 cities rose an average of more than 3 degrees. Only six cities saw their average temperature decline, it said.

Las Vegas was first on the list, with an increase of 5.76 degrees, followed by El Paso, Texas, which had a 4.74-degree rise, then Tucson and Phoenix. Rounding out the top five was Burlington, Vermont, where temperatures rose 4.13 degrees.

Among states, Arizona’s 3.23-degree change was third-largest, trailing Alaska’s average 4.22-degree rise and New Mexico’s 3.32-degree increase.

John Fleming, a staff scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the Southwest’s dry climate as a whole is a contributing factor to its increase in temperature.

“The Southwest is warming faster than other regions in the U.S. because it’s already a dry region that’s becoming even drier in response to climate change,” Fleming said. “Since moisture … can store and redistribute a lot of heat, without that, due to drought or a lack of rain, additional heat goes to heating the air and ground.”

That was echoed by Selover.

“The increase in the cities is more because of how we’re changing the surfaces of the cities from natural desert or from irrigated agriculture into pavements and buildings and sidewalks,” she said. “When the sun hits those surfaces, they are heavy thermal-mass materials and they absorb that heat, and it’s conducted down into the material.”

Fleming said the report is important because it takes a conversation that often revolves around national or global temperature change and brings it down to changes at the local level.

“Often these numbers are talked about in terms of nationwide or global,” he said. “Within that average is built in that, in some places, things are going to be even worse for people than in other places.”

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Selover said Arizona is doing a number of things to combat the change in temperature. Those include creating more shade to keep heat-susceptible surfaces from getting so hot and using new building materials that do not retain the heat as well.

“Whether that’s planting native vegetation and trees that will shade the ground from being able to receive that sunlight and heat up all day long, or whether it’s mechanical or artificial shade structures, they are working to shade more of the pavements,” she said.

Despite the climate challenges Phoenix and Tucson face, Selover said she believes Arizona residents will rise to the challenge.

“People have said, ‘You know, in so many years we will be uninhabitable.’ I don’t tend to buy into that argument,” she said.

“Because that would assume we are not doing anything to try and mitigate the heat,” Selover said. “We are using this opportunity to try and learn some lessons and try some things to find some strategies that will work and help us out.”

‘Super Bloom’ Snaps: Rain & Cool Temps Create Wildflower Spectacular

PHOENIX – Blankets of bright orange poppies and deep purple lupine cover the rugged hills and mountains at Picacho Peak State Park. Visitors have been flocking there to be dazzled by the flower-coated landscape, which is just a part of this year’s wildflower explosion across the Sonoran Desert.

At Picacho Peak, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, the bloom is the best it has been in 15 years, said Michelle Thompson, chief of communications for Arizona State Parks and Trails. Visitation at the park over the past few weekends has almost tripled compared with this time last year.

“It’s been quite awhile, just in general, since we’ve seen such a vast quantity of the flowers in the parks. That just makes those beautiful orange blankets all over the hills and the mountains look so gorgeous,” Thompson said. “You can see them from every trail.”

Hikers walk through Griffith Park in the eastern Santa Monica Mountains, which filled with wildflowers this spring. Wildflower blooms in California and Arizona are some of the best seen in recent years. (Photo by Jose Ivan Cazares/Cronkite News)

Everything right happened this year to get the spectacular bloom, said Juliet Stromberg, plant ecologist and emeritus professor at Arizona State University. The combination of a wet fall and winter, with precipitation beginning in October, and lower temperatures created an unprecedented bloom across most of desert Arizona.

Phoenix, for example, had its wettest October in history last year, with more than 5 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service. That cool, wet weather has hung around, keeping moisture in the ground much longer than usual, Stromberg said.

This bloom has been unprecedented, she said.

“I’ve seen things growing together that I have never seen grown together in my 30 years of living here,” Stromberg said. “We have a summer poppy and a winter poppy, and I was seeing the summer and winter poppies growing side by side. I’ve never seen this particular combination and sequence of plants. It’s just like, ‘Wow, I’ve wanted to see this plant for so long and there it is.’”

The warm, bright hues of brittlebush are taking over at Lost Dutchman State Park. Visitors can enjoy the flowers as they walk along the trails. (Photo by Thalia M. España/Cronkite News)

The rainfall-temperature combination set the stage for California and Mexican poppies, lupine, scorpionweed and globemallow to burst open across the desert, Stromberg said.

“The timing of the first major rainfall that kicked off the blooms, happening in October, was kind of an atypical period,” she said. “Then following that, we had the cooler rains. We’re in an El Niño cycle, so we’re having frequent rains that just kept everything going.”

Angelica Elliott, assistant director of public horticulture at the Desert Botanical Garden, said it has been some time since the Sonoran Desert has seen such huge numbers of wildflowers.

“These seasons where we have these spectacular blooms don’t happen every year,” Elliott said. “It’s been over 10 years since we’ve seen this type of wildflower display.”

With the lower temperatures came successive nights of freezing, which can impact the wildflowers, Elliott said. But she said those cold nights earlier this year didn’t damage the flowers.

Southern California is also seeing a super bloom this spring with wildflowers blanketing hills and mountains.The trails at Griffith Park, a popular hiking destination for many Los Angeles residents are lined with flowers. (Photo by Jose Ivan Cazares/ Cronkite News)

“I was driving out to Superstition Mountains, and I looked out along the roadside and it was just covered with purple lupine,” she said. “Even down in the Safford area, you’ll see mountains ablaze with orange – that’s the poppies blooming. It’s been a good year and the freezing temperatures haven’t seemed to be an impact.”

The wildflower season may last through May, Thompson said. Oracle State Park near Tucson and Red Rock State Park near Sedona are expected to have wonderful blooms, too. The parks are slightly higher in elevation, so flowers there haven’t quite opened up their petals to show off their springtime color.

– Video report by Claire Kelly