Several times last week, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta canceled morning launches and evening glows due to rainy and/or windy skies.
Albuquerque has made sunny skies part of its portfolio to attract visitors and economic development. Having to cancel balloon launches during the state’s signature tourism event — during its golden anniversary, no less — is decidedly off-script. But with moisture so lacking in the midst of an ongoing drought, it’s hard for locals to get too upset about this poorly timed wet spell.
“We bask in 310 days of sunshine, combined with a mild, dry climate and four distinct seasons. Very low humidity means that even when temperatures rise, summer is always comfortable, and our sunny winters are comparatively mild,” Visit Albuquerque proudly proclaims on its website. “Odds are that you will enjoy clear, sunny days and perfect weather.”
The odds didn’t pay off this past week, but all we have to do is look at debris-strewn southwestern Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian to understand that drizzle and downpours in Albuquerque are merely an inconvenience. We can be thankful we’re not vulnerable to bigger threats.
It’s a timely reminder New Mexico is a relatively safe place to live when it comes to natural disasters. Yes, we’ve had our share of massive wildfires, which can be destructive. But they’re more likely to cause damage to property than loss of life. No fatalities were reported as a result of this year’s Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire — the largest in state history — though two women died in San Miguel County after flash floods raged in and near the fire’s burn scars this summer. In addition, an elderly couple died in the McBride fire in Ruidoso. Tragic, to be certain, but nothing on the scale of Hurricane Ian, which has killed at least 120 people in Florida, according to state and local officials.
We don’t mean to diminish the pain and suffering of those whose homes and property were destroyed in the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. Their anguish is multiplied by the fact this wasn’t a natural disaster so much as a human-error fiasco. The fire was ignited by two federal prescribed burns in April during windy conditions.
But it does illustrate the scope and scale of natural disasters in New Mexico compared to other states. Analysts estimate Ian has inflicted more than $40 billion in property damage claims alone. Meanwhile, Congress is contemplating a $2.5 billion appropriation to fully compensate victims of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire for losses during the fire and the floods and ash-laden debris flows that followed.
So, yes, fires are an omnipresent threat in New Mexico. So are flash floods. But we’re spared from major earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and coastal flooding, which tend to be the most destructive natural disasters.
Still, the intensity of the natural disasters, and even our forest fires, have increased in recent years with many scientists pointing to climate change — or “climate weirding” as some atmospheric scientists call it.
Extended drought and rising temperatures portend more destruction, hot-burning forest and wildfires in New Mexico and elsewhere. Tornadoes are roaring through the country’s tornado alley with greater ferocity and frequency; could some eventually spill over to the Southwest? Could a polar vortex plunge us into a deep freeze that strains the electrical grid? Nothing seems off the table given the propensity of extreme weather phenomena we’ve witnessed across the country and around the globe in recent years.
We’ve seen the weather change at our very own annual Balloon Fiesta, which has continued to be held the first week of October. Early morning visitors to Balloon Fiesta Park no longer have to bundle up. Compare that to the chilly mornings in the 1980s when predawn temperatures meant we could see our breath and we wore thermal base layers, gloves and heavy jackets.
We would be foolish to ignore the signs of climate change in our own backyard. Sandia Peak Ski Area will remain closed for the second consecutive year, with management citing potential reduced snowfall and too-short ski seasons among the reasons.
“Sandia Peak has for sure had less snow and shorter winters in the past five years than we had seen in the past 20,” said Ben Abruzzo, general manager of Sandia Peak Ski area and president of Ski Santa Fe.
The Balloon Fiesta grew into the largest hot air ballooning event in the world due, in part, to the predictable wind patterns that take place at the base of the Sandias. Winds flow in opposite directions depending on altitude, allowing balloon pilots to take off and land close to the same spot.
“The box,” as it’s come to be known, was discovered during the 1972 original balloon rally during the centerpiece event — a roadrunner and coyote chase. Now it’s an iconic feature of the balloon fiesta, and it would be a shame for it to become a casualty of shifting climate trends.
Drought, diminished snowpack, shorter and milder winters, and tinder-dry wildlands are already here.
Extreme environmentalists do not have the answers. Neither do those who favor unfettered expansion of fossil fuels.
We need to work together to be part of the climate solution.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.
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