State work group trying to balance risks from investors, negative impacts to agriculture by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism & Luke Runyon/KUNC

May 5, 2021

Harts Basin Ranch is a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge in Delta County. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch. Harts Basin Ranch is a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge in Delta County. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch.CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

ECKERT — Melting snow and flowing irrigation ditches mean spring has finally arrived at the base of Grand Mesa in western Colorado. 

Harts Basin Ranch, a 3,400-acre expanse of hayfields and pasture just south of Cedaredge, in Delta County, is coming back to life with the return of water. 

Twelve hundred of the ranch’s acres are irrigated with water from Alfalfa Ditch, diverted from Surface Creek, which flows down the south slopes of the Grand Mesa. The ranch has the No. 1 priority water right — meaning the oldest, which comes with the ability to use the creek’s water first — dating to 1881. 

What makes the ranch unique among its Grand Mesa-area neighbors is its owner. Conscience Bay Company, a Boulder-based private real estate investment firm, bought the property in 2017. 

That fact alone has brought its owners scrutiny from neighbors and Western Slope water managers. Conscience Bay and its president, Eli Feldman, have been accused of water speculation — which means buying up the ranch just for its senior water rights and hoarding them for a future profit. 

That is an accusation Feldman denies.

“Any time you come into a place that you’re not from, people are curious at best and skeptical and concerned at worst,” he said. 

The ranch raises organic beef using regenerative techniques that operators say are better for soil health. Conscience Bay holds grazing permits on tracts of public land in western Colorado and Utah where the cattle feast on grass before being sent to California to be finished, slaughtered and sold under the brand name SunFed Ranch. 

To the charges that he’s doing something untoward by investing in the ranch’s land and abundant water rights, Feldman said he’s just like any other major water user in the state putting it to beneficial use. The ranch is using the water to irrigate, he said. 

“We’re growing grass and feeding it to cows and trying to improve the ground, improve the soil health and make a business out of it,” Feldman said.

Speculation work group

The conversation around water speculation has been heating up in Colorado in recent months. At the direction of state lawmakers, a work group has been meeting regularly to explore ways to strengthen the state’s anti-speculation law. The topic frequently comes up at meetings of Western Slope water managers: the Colorado River Water Conservation District, basin roundtables and boards of county commissioners. 

Investments such as Feldman’s have been of interest to the work group, which consists of water managers and users from around the state and is chaired by Kevin Rein, state engineer and head of the Division of Water Resources.

“I think it’s a valid concern because they do see unusual parties, large parties that, again, aren’t the typical parties, purchasing those water rights, and so that’s the concern,” Rein said. “Are they speculating or are they purchasing just so they can flip it, as people say, in a few years for more money?”

Under Colorado law, a water-rights holder must put their water to “beneficial use,” meaning continuing to use the water for what it was decreed in order to hang onto it. But Colorado also treats the right to use water as a private-property right. People can buy and sell water rights, change what the water is allowed to be used for and, if given a court’s blessing, move the water from agricultural use to growing cities.  

This system, used widely in the western United States, creates an opening for investors who see water as an increasingly valuable commodity in a water-short future, driven by climate change. A private-equity fund, Water Asset Management, is now the largest landowner in the Grand Valley Water Users Association, which provides water for farmers in the intensely irrigated valley, a short drive from Harts Basin Ranch. The purchases of the New York City-based company have raised suspicions among water managers and prompted the formation of the speculation work group. 

Similar concerns have cropped up in agricultural communities throughout the West. A water transfer in Arizona from agricultural lands on the Colorado River to a rapidly expanding Phoenix exurb recently stirred up controversy. In Nevada, Water Asset Management is trying to market water held in an underground aquifer.

Colorado’s current anti-speculation doctrine is based on case law that says those seeking a water right must have a vested interest in the lands to be served by the water and must have a specific plan to put the water to beneficial use.

The work group has identified the following risks from speculators: investors’ obtaining a monopoly over a local water market; large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands; less water availability for other water users; and violation of Colorado’s values to see a vital public resource traded as a commodity.

Part of Harts Basin Ranch’s hayfields are irrigated with sprinklers. The ranch is owned by Boulder-based Conscience Bay Company and has the oldest water right on the Alfalfa Ditch. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Potential risks and solutions

The potential solutions to these risks are many, according to a draft document. The work group is exploring several of these, including creating a process to determine the intent of the purchaser; taxing profits from the sale of water rights at varying rates to encourage beneficial use and to discourage profiteering; imposing time limits on turnover of ownership to discourage short-term “flipping”; encouraging local governments to police investments through their 1041 powers; and creating a public-review process for water transfers that exceed some threshold. 

The group has not coalesced around any of these potential solutions, but state officials said they are zeroing in on using the water court process to evaluate transfers as a way of spotting speculation.

The work group is supposed to submit a report, along with any recommendations from members, to state officials by August. But so far, the group has had a difficult time making sense of the thorny questions raised by these issues. Even trying to define what speculation is (and isn’t) and who is considered a speculator has been a struggle.

“It’s one thing to point at something and say, ‘Oh, that’s probably speculative.’ Another to actually put the legal definition on it,” said Alex Funk, agricultural water-resources specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Funk is also a member of the work group. 

Discussions so far about reining in speculation have focused on the intent of the buyer. Can the state determine whether someone who is purchasing water rights intends to grow hay or build a residential subdivision? Or are they solely focused on the water rights’ future value? And how do you tell the difference?

“Do we want to protect against certain types of intent?” Rein said. “And then how do we determine that?” 

Predetermining a water-right purchaser’s intent could prove to be a difficult task, akin to stopping a crime before it’s actually committed. Funk invoked the 2002 film “Minority Report,” in which a police detective (played by Tom Cruise), with the help of three psychics, tracks down would-be murderers and arrests them before any gun goes off.

“There aren’t speculation police running the state and breaking up these investments, right?” Funk said.

A parshall flume measures the water in the Alfalfa Ditch, which diverts water from Surface Creek, near Cedaredge. The water is used to irrigate hayfields at nearby Harts Basin Ranch. CREDIT: LUKE RUNYON/KUNC

Financial water speculation

A draft report by the work group attempts to define two different types of speculation. 

The first is traditional water speculation, which involves obtaining a water right without any plan or intent to put that water to beneficial use. The intent is to obtain a desirable priority date and then sell the water right to others who have a beneficial use. 

This type of speculation has been addressed before in Colorado water law in what is known as the High Plains case. In 2005, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that a water-investment company was speculating because its plan for using the water was too expansive and nebulous, and the plan did not identify either the structures through which the water would be diverted or the specific locations where the water would be used.

The second type of speculation — and, because of WAM’s dealings in the Grand Valley, the one on which the work group is more focused — is financial water speculation. The work group defines this as the purchase and use of water rights with the primary purpose of profiting from increased value of the water in a short period of time. Financial water speculation may run counter to Colorado’s prior-appropriation doctrine because the primary intent is profit rather than beneficial use. 

The concerns over speculation tap into a deep-seated anxiety that is prevalent in Western farm towns: the transfer of water from agriculture to cities. There are real examples of agricultural water being sold to cities, sometimes derisively described as “buy and dry,” and some rural communities have suffered economically as a result. 

In some ways, the work group’s discussion of how to prevent speculation is really a broader discussion of how to prevent water transfers away from agriculture. The group has identified the large-scale, permanent dry-up of agricultural lands as the No. 1 risk from speculators. Part of Funk’s job is to head up a program of “alternative transfer methods,” which allow cities to temporarily buy or lease water from agriculture, but without the severe economic impacts.

“I think the issue with speculation is that what on paper might seem a very sort of small, isolated issue, as soon as you start sort of unpacking it a little bit, it’s essentially all the problems that Western water and rural communities are facing in, like, one issue,” Funk said. “So, as soon as you start unraveling it, you start running into other forces at play that are really beyond the state’s control or any one individual producer’s control.”

Cowgirls lasso calves so they can be branded and vaccinated at Harts Basin Ranch in April. The Delta County ranch, whose owners have been accused of water speculation, raises organic cattle. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Impacts to ag

The work group is walking a fine line to come up with ways to deter speculation while not harming traditional agriculture producers in the process. In a big-picture sense, irrigators may worry about the impact to their community and way of life if all their neighbors sell to hedge funds. But when it’s their turn to receive a check for their water rights, they don’t want regulators doing anything that would make the process harder or devalue the ranch they have put their lives into, including restricting whom they can sell to. 

It’s an oft-repeated adage that a rancher’s land and water rights are their 401(k) or their child’s college fund, and some say any new rules aimed at speculators should not make it more difficult for traditional ag producers to cash out if and when they want. 

So far, the investment firms active in western Colorado have continued to lease their land back to farmers, or farm it themselves.

Carlyle Currier, a rancher in Molina and president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, has a seat on the Colorado River Basin Roundtable and his family has ranched in the Grand Mesa area for more than a century. Currier said until the investors attempt to sell it off, they’re not doing anything illegal.

“If the government can tell (someone) they can’t buy a farm and farm it, well, then they could tell me that, too. And I don’t want them telling me that,” Currier said. 

The speculation discussion is also set against the backdrop of a potential demand-management program, the feasibility of which the state is currently studying. A demand-management program would pay irrigators on a temporary, voluntary basis to fallow fields and leave more water in the river. This water would be sent to Lake Powell to fill a 500,000-acre-foot pool that could be used to help the upper-basin states avoid a protracted legal battle with states downstream on the Colorado River. 

Some say the exploration of demand management — including pay-to-fallow pilot projects in the Grand Valley — could have opened the door for investors who want to take advantage of the program to make easy money. Where there are opportunities, there are opportunists. 

“Here in Mesa County, we’ve been watching a Wall Street investment firm buying up agricultural properties all with pre-compact water rights,” Steve Aquafresca, Mesa County’s Colorado River District representative, said at a board meeting last month. “I think it could be safely said that these actions probably would not have occurred if the state were not discussing the possibility of a demand-management program and if one particular major irrigation-water provider was not showing some willingness to entertain a demand-management program.”

The Alfalfa Ditch, seen here in April, takes its water from Surface Creek. The owners of Harts Basin Ranch, which has a water right on Alfalfa Creek dating to 1881, have been accused of buying the ranch just for its old and valuable water rights. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

Suspicion of outsiders

For all the concern about water speculation, there’s scant proof that it’s happening on a large scale on the Western Slope. Even WAM is not speculating, according to the current definition, as long as they keep the land in agricultural production. 

“It does seem like there’s a lot of speculation about speculation,” Feldman of investment firm Conscience Bay said.

Instead, he said, old-fashioned suspicion of outsiders is at the heart of the issue. 

“There’s people that view us as outsiders and we are not from here,” he said. “We know that. We know that damn well. And that’s not news to us.”

And there’s some evidence that he’s right. The Colorado River District, which protects Western Slope water interests, is developing a policy statement about water speculation. A draft of the policy says the district “recognizes the importance of locally owned agricultural lands and waters” and will work “to protect our state’s water resources from out-of-state special interests.” 

And although these ideas didn’t get much traction, the work group has also floated two more potential solutions targeting outsiders: restricting the ability of out-of-state entities to participate in Colorado water court proceedings and prohibiting out-of-state entities from holding water rights.

“Is speculation just another word for investment (but it has) a negative connotation to it because it’s somebody that’s not from here?” Feldman said. “OK, well, do you not want to have investment in rural Colorado? Is that what we’re after? That’s where it would go if you put up enough barriers and hoops.”

Feldman says he is not the enemy. His operation isn’t the mom-and-pop homestead ranch of the Old West. It’s the investor-owned, employee-operated, risk-taking ranch of the New West. Harts Basin Ranch is looking for innovative ways to adapt to water scarcity and is participating in a program with environmental group Trout Unlimited to study consumptive use and how agriculture can stay productive while using less water. The group receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River reporting. 

Feldman sees the heated discussion about speculation as a symptom of how Western communities are choosing to grapple with increasing water scarcity under climate change. There are those who explore new ways of running an old business and there are those who want to protect the status quo.

“At its core you see a real friction or conflict between a group of people that’s trying to make water policy more flexible to adapt to a changing climate,” Feldman said, “and those that are trying to impose more rigidity and prevent any change from occurring.”

This story was part of a collaboration between KUNC in Colorado and Aspen Journalism. Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit and investigative news organization that covers water and river issues. KUNC’s Colorado River reporting project is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content. 


Scientists identify possible connection between the solar cycle and whether El Niño or La Niña is present

Sea surface temperature anomalies during the 2015-2016 El Niño event. (NOAA) 

By  Matthew CappucciMeteorologist

May 8, 2021

When it comes to long-term hurricane forecasts, tornado predictions in the Plains or prospects for winter rain in California, you’ll often hear meteorologists refer to El Niño or La Niña. They’re phases in a cycle that starts in the tropics, spreading an influence across the globe and shaping weather both close to home and on different continents.

Now there’s emerging research to suggest that cosmic rays, or positively charged, high-energy particles from space, might be the mechanism that flips the switch between phases. Cosmic rays come from outside our solar system, but the number and intensity that reach Earth hinge on the magnetic field of the sun.

A swing between El Niño and La Niña can have dramatic implications on global weather, bringing widespread shifts in precipitation and changes in temperature that can be problematic for vulnerable populations and have massive economic effects. In California, for instance, flood events during El Niño periods have proven 10 times more costly than those during La Niña events. In some parts of the world that depend heavily on agriculture and marine commerce, a flip from El Niño to La Niña can alter daily life.

A paper recently published in the journal Earth and Space Science links terminator events, or the end of a cycle on the sun, with the flip of a switch between El Niño and La Niña. The solar magnetic cycle, which is mirrored by fluctuations in the number of sunspots on the solar disk, is made up of roughly 22-year periods. Each span features two maxima and minima each of sunspot frequency and coverage  one of each magnetic polarity lasting roughly 11 years.

Sunspots behave like bar magnets: Imagine that the bar magnets rotate 180 degrees every 11 years.

Robert Leamon, a research scientist at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and one of the researchers credited with the discovery, said that, if more can be learned about the relationship between solar activity and the El Niño-La Niña cycle, or ENSO, it could be a game-changer for disaster preparedness.

In Australia, for example, El Niño events, associated with warming waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean, tend to substantially increase the risk of drought, while La Niñas, tied to cooling waters, increase rainfall and flooding.

“I have some attention from the Australians,” said Leamon in a recent phone call. “I think of the massive wildfires and droughts that dominated headlines before covid. I hope here will come a time soon that people recognize that, based on the phase of the solar cycle, there is a likelihood of there being El Niño or La Niña.”

How the relationship works

The key to this proposed solar-weather connection lies in “terminator” events, which spell the end of a solar cycle. Over the course of 22 years, bands of magnetism wrapping around the sun slowly migrate toward the equator, interacting with one another to produce sunspots. Those sunspots, or cool, dark discolorations on the sun’s surface, pulsate with magnetic energy, occasionally hurling it into space in solar storms that can spark displays of the northern lights.

There are two bands of magnetism per hemisphere on the sun. At solar minimum, both sets of bands are of equal and opposite strength, so the sun’s magnetic output flatlines. That drop changes the sun’s magnetic field, resulting in a decrease in the number of cosmic rays hitting Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The prediction of the NASA/NOAA panel for Solar Cycle 25, with the previous two cycles plotted. (NASA/NOAA) 

Leamon explained that the flip from El Niño to La Niña usually comes a couple of months after a cycle’s terminator. Since the terminator event is associated with a drop-off in cosmic rays, Leamon thinks the triggering mechanism is electrical in nature.

“Yes, it has to be,” said Leamon, who suspects that the abrupt drop-off in conductivity of the upper atmosphere, or ease through which electrical energy flows through it, is having a chain reaction of effects that percolates down to the surface, where weather occurs.

“The solar effects on the upper atmosphere predispose the atmosphere to be in La Niña,” he explained.

How the sun might flip the switch to La Niña

Timeline of cold (La Niña) and warm (El Niño) events since 1980, based on the Oceanic Niño Index of sea surface temperature. Colored bars show the duration of each event. (Graphic by Bob Henson, based on data from NOAA/CPC) 

But that’s where things get hazy — namely because Leamon and his colleagues have yet to establish an understanding of how a change in electrical field would influence the oceans and induce a La Niña. He does have a few hunches, though.

“It changes how the [large-scale atmospheric] waves that the likes of thunderstorms or clouds or moisture upwelling generate in the Pacific,” Leamon said.

While the researchers didn’t link the strength of a terminator event with the strength of an El Niño or La Niña pattern, they said there was a connection between bigger terminator events and a more dramatic shift from Niño to Niña.

“One of the things we’ve keyed into is, as this correlation gets stronger, whatever the mechanism is, produces the biggest swing,” said Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a co-author on the project. “We’re talking peak to peak El Niño into La Niña, … the peak of heating [in the east tropical Pacific] to trough of cooling.”

Lingering La Niñas may help forecasters spot costly weather patterns two years away

Applications of the findings

If their theory holds up, it could become a big player in seasonal hurricane forecasts, because the first year after a shift toward La Niña often brings a busy Atlantic season. That’s because water temperatures in the Atlantic remain comparatively mild, while upper-atmospheric winds are weak, allowing storms to develop without being shredded apart.

El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The pattern can shift back and forth irregularly every two to seven years, triggering a cascade of global side effects. (NOAA) 

Leamon endeavors that, down the road, their techniques may allow for rough El Niño/La Niña forecasts up to a decade in advance.

Reaction from climate and space scientists

Farmhands observe wheat grain falling from a combine harvester into a truck in the Panipat district of Haryana, India, on April 11. India’s monsoon, which provides water for agriculture, depends heavily on ENSO, or El Niño/La Niña conditions. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg News) 

Despite the strong correlation and the efforts ahead, the study has been met with mixed reviews from the climate science community. That’s usually the case in science with any new, novel ways of looking at an issue. In this case, the multidisciplinary element — combining space weather with Earth’s climate — blends two different communities together.

Mathew Barlow, a professor of climate science at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, described the findings as a “potentially interesting empirical relationship,” but said the proof is in the pudding when it comes to using those findings.

“We have yet to see whether the relationship, even if truly robust, can measurably improve current forecasts,” he wrote in an email. “My own personal interest level would tick up noticeably based on … the identification of a plausible physical mechanism underlying the relationship.”

Others point to the short time scale over which observations were used to draw conclusions. Among them is Mark Cane, a climate scientist at Columbia University and an El Niño expert.

“Intuition should warn you that roughly 60 years of data is not enough to tell you anything conclusive about a 22-year cycle,” he wrote.

Among space scientists, the research is beginning to catch on. Tamitha Skov, a space weather physicist who goes by “Space Weather Woman” on social media, described the work as “a [wake-up] call to terrestrial meteorologists and solar/space weather scientists.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to call the results of this work a ‘conclusion’ per se — rather something akin to a steppingstone in a new direction,” wrote Skov in an email. “But to take the next step, these improved observations of the sun and those of the neutral atmosphere are only a part of the puzzle that needs to be pieced together.”

For now, it remains to be seen if the relationship will hold during the next solar cycle — but Leamon and McIntosh plan to continue forging ahead in hopes of next figuring out why the link between solar activity and El Niño and La Niña exists.

“It has sort of been an uphill struggle,” Leamon said. “But one man’s noise is another man’s data.”

~ la puerta del misterio ~ El Mercurio

I had to repost this because, well just because … rŌbert

After nearly 15 years of investigation into the disappearance of private property near Silverton Colorado …several articles were found in a small mountain community in the central Chilean Andes, tacked to the door of a rundown hut.

Authorities still remain baffled. President and founder of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, Chris Laundry commented, ” We’ve exhausted every lead ..even as far as Gulmorg on the Kashmir-Pakistan border. These signs and their investigation has cost the American taxpayer dearly …which almost brought our project to its knees.”

Chris Laundry

The US embassy in Santiago is looking into this matter and hasn’t ruled out bringing in the FBI.

Several individuals under suspicion commented, “We cannot confirm nor deny the accusations.”

Dust, snow, and diminishing albedo ~ The Land Desk




Spring dust storms further shrink the snow “reservoir” that feeds the Colorado River 

Jonathan P. Thompson
May 7, 2021

Most of us are poor now, like I am. Many of them blame John Collier, who made us reduce our flocks and herds because there was not enough grass for all. But I think the true reason is a change in the climate. When I was a young man this whole country was covered with tall grass. We had rains enough in summer to keep it alive and growing. Now the rains do not come and the grass dies. There are fewer sheep and horses now than when our family claimed this valley, yet all you can see is sand. The grass is gone. 

All we need to be rich again is rain.

—Navajo elder Hoskannini-Begay, who lived on Naatsis’áán, or Navajo Mountain, near the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers, to Charles Kelly in 1945 

The McElmo Dome, Mesa Verde, and Ute Mountain, obscured by dust. Heavily grazed lands are in the foreground. The view was blotted out altogether later that day. Jonathan P. Thompson photo. 

It’s springtime in the Southwest, which means that on four days out of five a dry wind blows incessantly, tossing hats and untethered tents high into the air. The Mistral of southern France is said to drive people—and even horses—insane. The Four Corners Country’s April and May gusts are every bit as maddening, sending humans into paroxysms of mental distress.

And if the wind doesn’t drive you to the brink, then the dust carried by that wind will—dust that blots out desert views, coats your dinner with teeth-grinding grit, and somehow manages to get into every nook and cranny imaginable. Worse, that stuff will eventually fall on what remains of the snow in the mountains, coating the surface with a reddish-brown tinge that kills the snow’s albedo (not libido, silly, albedo). That speeds up snowmelt, which has ripple effects across the ecosystem and water supplies in the lowlands, which, in turn, dries out and frees up more dust for the wind’s taking. 

During some years the “dust events” manifest as just that, distinct events during which the wind kicks up, followed by a growing volume of dust in the air, followed by a thick layer of dust on the surface of the snow. Dust stormfeels too dramatic a phrase to describe the phenomenon. The incidents in the Four Corners country usually don’t involve a wall of airborne sand, thousands of feet tall, rushing across the desert and gobbling up everything in its path, as sometimes happens further south in the Phoenix area. Dust event, on the other hand, feels too clinical. I prefer aeolian—or windborne—dust cloud, since its root is the Ancient Greek god of wind, Aeolus. 

These episodes are not uncommon in these parts, happening several times a year, most often in late winter and early spring. “Our party experienced a violent windstorm when we were several miles above the mouth of Piute Creek,” wrote Hugh D. Miser in a 1924 report on a trip down the San Juan River in Utah on 16-foot boats. “It blew in gusts and picked up sand and fine yellow dust, which were carried up into the air for hundreds if not thousands of feet.” Eight years later, during the severe drought of the early 1930s, newspapers reported that a good two inches of red, dust-infused snow fell on Durango. In that case, the dust even may have “seeded” the clouds, giving something around which the snowflakes could form. 

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Story from the Feb. 5, 1932, Steamboat Pilot

All that dust on (or in) the snow brings about subtle but significant changes by throwing the snowpack’s albedo out of whack. “Albedo is a non-dimensional, unitless quantity that indicates how well a surface reflects solar energy,” notes the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “Albedo varies between 0 and 1. Albedo commonly refers to the ‘whiteness’ of a surface, with 0 meaning black and 1 meaning white.” If a surface’s albedo is zero, or black, then it absorbs all of the solar energy. If it is one, or totally white, it absorbs none of the solar energy, or reflects all of it. When dark-colored dust (or ash, or carbon, or what have you) coats the snow, it reduces the albedo, causing the snow surface to absorb more solar energy, thereby melting the snow more quickly. 

In 2003 a group of snow-focused scientists founded the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies to study the dust-on-snow phenomenon in the San Juan Mountains and to better understand its long-term effects. The San Juan Mountain snowpack is considered to be a giant, natural reservoir that stores up vast amounts of water in the form of snow during the winter months, slowly releasing it to flow down to the arid, surrounding lands in the spring. Most of the snowmelt ends up in the Colorado River watershed, but the San Juan Mountains also contain headwaters for the Rio Grande. 

Those who use the water, whether they are irrigators or river rafters or fish, want an abundant but slow-melting snowpack. Dust on snow speeds up the snowmelt, disrupting alpine flora phenology,¹ or the natural calendar that tells plants when to bloom and so forth, and pushing the spring runoff earlier into the year. Reduced albedo enhances evapotranspiration and snow sublimation², thereby reducing the amount of water that goes into the streams and rivers. Aeolian dust on the snow, alone, has pushed the peak of spring runoff of the Colorado River watershed up by three weeks, when compared to the period prior to the 1850s, and it has also reduced the total runoff volume.  

These aeolian dust events are natural and have probably been taking place every spring since the end of the Pleistocene era and the retreat, some 12,000 years ago, of the glaciers that carved many of the region’s valleys. Maybe the dust events occurred during the last ice age and contributed to the melting of the glaciers, which was mainly caused by global warming resulting from a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That, too, was natural. But just as human activity is again causing an increase in carbon and a warming climate, so, too, has human activity exacerbated the aeolian dust cloud phenomenon. 

By examining the sediment that had built up over nearly six millennia at the bottom of alpine lakes in the San Juan Mountains, researchers in 2008³concluded that most, if not all, of the dust deposited on the San Juan Mountain snows is from the Colorado Plateau, not Asia or other distant lands, as has been hypothesized in the past. And they found that dust events have been occurring for thousands of years but picked up significantly beginning about a century and a half ago, coinciding with the white settler-colonist influx of the mid-1800s and peaking in the first few decades of the twentieth century, when volumes of dust were five times higher than they were prior to colonization. The timing leaves little doubt regarding the cause of the uptick in dust: a combination of the newcomers’ land-disturbing ways, which include mining, development, tilling for farming, logging, and, perhaps most dust-raising of all, cattle grazing, which has drastically altered the landscape of the Colorado Plateau. 

The cattle and sheep ate the native grasses and trampled the fragile soil, making way for non-native grasses to invade and preclude the return of the native vegetation, while also encouraging gulley-forming erosion. Where once ran braided, intermittent streams along wide, flat, sandy beds, now there are deep channels. Streambeds are choked with cheatgrass and other invasive species. These gullied arroyos are so common in the West—the Rio Puerco in northern New Mexico offers one of the most striking examples—that many observers assume that it is the “natural” state, and that they’ve always looked that way. Call it normalized degradation.

Cattle hooves will also wreck the fragile cryptobiotic crust that is critical to the desert ecosystem, and which, as renowned cryptobiotic crust researcher Jayne Belnap put it, holds “the place in place.” Cryptobiotic crust, sometimes known as cryptogamic soil, is ubiquitous, or once was, in most of southeastern Utah. At first glance it looks just like, well, dirt, only with a dark-brown-to-black hue that resembles desert varnish. Bend down and look more closely, however, and you’ll see a miniature, living world—a symbiotic mingling of cyanobacteria, lichen, and mosses—which is particularly noticeable when the crust is wet. The cyanobacteria are made up of filaments wrapped in sheaths. Writes Belnap: “This sheath material sticks to surfaces such as rock or soil particles, forming an intricate webbing of fibers in the soil. In this way, loose soil particles are joined together, and otherwise unstable and highly erosion-prone surfaces become resistant to both wind and water erosion.” And when the crust is destroyed, it leaves those same soils vulnerable to erosion and to the types of winds that scrape across the region every spring. 

And the damage is, indeed, irreparable. Once wrecked, cryptobiotic crust may take decades, even centuries, to fully recover. In 2005 Belnap published a paper⁴ on the impacts of decades of grazing on soils in southeastern Utah. She and her co-researcher ventured into the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and compared an area that had been grazed from the 1880s until 1974 with Virginia Park, an area where an impassible cliff kept cattle at bay, and which is now a “relict area” shut off to people entirely, save for researchers with a light touch. Belnap’s findings are disturbing. Even 30 years after the cattle had been removed from the historically grazed site, the land had not recovered. The cyanobacteria were distributed spottily, the lichen and moss were only beginning to come back, nutrients and organic material were more sparse than in the ungrazed area, and the soil remains far less stable, which means it more easily can get picked up by the wind and carried to the snow in the San Juan Mountains. Also troubling is the difficulty the researchers had in finding plots of land that had never seen grazing at all, even in a national park. Somehow the cowboys of yore were able to squeeze the cows and their attendant effects into just about every corner of the region. 

Back in 1965, James Rodney Hastings and Raymond M. Turner compared historic photographs of a section of Sonoran Desert with modern ones and determined that cattle grazing in the late nineteenth century had caused a “shift in the regional vegetation of an order so striking that it might be better associated with the oscillations of Pleistocene time than with the ‘stable’ present.”⁵ If we are currently living in the Anthropocene, then an appropriate subset might be the Bovineiferous period or, more appropriate still, the Beefocene. 

Clearly cattle are not the only culprit. ATVs, mountain bikes, cars, and bulldozers can wreck cryptobiotic crust and mobilize dust. Chaining huge swaths of juniper forest to make way for forage or even sagebrush is hugely destructive and dusty. Before each of the tens of thousands of oil and gas wells were drilled across the San Juan Basin, more than an acre of land was scraped clean of all vegetation, top soil, cacti, sagebrush, and even centuries-old juniper trees. Every new house or hotel built on Moab’s, Durango’s, or Farmington’s fringe stirs up dust. Springtime tilling of corn, bean, sunflower, and alfalfa fields kick up huge amounts of dust. Even a single human backpacker trodding through the P-J forest in hiking boots can crush and break up the living soil, liberating the dust underneath for the wind’s taking. 

And just as dust on snow can exacerbate aridity, so too can aridity exacerbate the dust problem. The winter of 2013 was one of the skimpiest snow years on record in the Four Corners Country, parching the Colorado Plateau and turning what should have been moist soils and muddy lands into dust patches. The March winds lifted the earth up into the air and carried it across the mesas and canyons, leading to a number of severe dust events. In Durango the dust was so thick that it fell with rain as a gritty red slime, coating cars and buildings and just about everything else; the Durango Herald ran a woe-filled article about a window washer whose work was destroyed by the storm, forcing him to start all over again. Another dust event a week later would whip up a nasty wildfire near Farmington and contribute to a fatal car crash. The dust ended up on top of what snow was left in the San Juans, reducing rivers and streams to a trickle that summer.

This water year—taken in isolation—hasn’t been quite as meagre, moisture-wise, as 2013 was, meaning a little more of the place seems to be staying in place, despite the maddening winds. But the effects of 20-plus years of aridification and warm temperatures has left the region unusually dry, and the relentless wind has filled the air with a constant, mid-level dust-haze, which thickens during especially gusty times. 

A few weeks ago I unwittingly followed the aeolian dust cloud from northern Arizona into southeastern Utah, where I watched Ute Mountain and the Abajos slowly vanish behind a sepia-toned gauze that seemed to hang from the otherwise clear sky. A few days later I drove over Red Mountain Pass and pulled over to inspect the snowpack. A dusting of new snow had fallen atop the dust layer, partially covering it up for a brief moment. But it was springtime in the San Juans, another dry year in the unrelenting string of dry years, which meant that another dust cloud would arrive before long.

It felt strange but also revelatory to be in the thick of this big cycle of soil disturbance, aeolian dust events, reduced albedo, faster-melting snow, diminished river flows; to be experiencing the interconnectedness of the region, the intimate link between desert and mountains, in real time. 

Parts of this essay are excerpted from Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, by Jonathan P. Thompson, to be published by Torrey House Press in August 2021. Become a Land Desk Founding Member ($100 or more) and get a free signed copy, along with other swag, to be delivered this August. 



Drawing from the latest decade of weather data, the new normals are a reflection of climate change

U.S. temperatures from 1991 to 2020 compared with 20th-century average (The Washington Post)

By  Bob Henson and Jason Samenow May 4, 2021

The official calculation of what constitutes “normal” U.S. climate has been updated — and to virtually nobody’s surprise, it’s a warmer picture than ever before.

On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an updated set of climate averages for the contiguous United States based on the 30-year period from 1991 to 2020, including more than 9,000 daily reporting stations. It refers to these averages* as “climate normals,” and updates them once every decade.

Compared with previous 30-year periods, the climate has turned unambiguously warmer.

“We’re really seeing the fingerprints of climate change in the new normals,” Michael Palecki, manager of NOAA’s effort to update the climate normals, said at an April news conference. “We’re not trying to hide that. We’re in fact reflecting that.”

The 30-year average temperature for the 48 contiguous states climbed to a record high of 53.28 degrees in the most recent 30 years, Palecki confirmed in an email.

Since 1901-1930, the first period for which climate normals were calculated, the contiguous United States has warmed 1.7 degrees, or about 1 degree Celsius. That’s roughly on par with the global rate of warming over that period, although the United States was lagging the rest of the world until the last several decades.

The country has seen its two largest jumps in temperatures during the two most recent 30-year periods for climate normals. They rose 0.5 degrees from the period 1971-2000 to 1981-2010 and 0.46 degrees from 1981-2010 to 1991-2020. Since 1901-1930, all but two of the 30-year periods have shown an increase in temperature.

“You can see that there’s a huge difference in temperature over time as we go from cooler climates in the early part of the 20th century to ubiquitously warmer climates here in the last two sets of normals,” Palecki said.

While the normal U.S. temperature is on the rise, some regions have warmed more than others and, over short time periods, some smaller areas haven’t warmed at all.

Temperatures actually dropped slightly for 1991-2020 compared with 1981-2010 across a part of the north-central United States extending into south-central Canada. Such departures can happen even amid longer-term warming if the decade being added (the 2010s) happens to be slightly cooler in a particular location than the decade being dropped (the 1980s).

The increase in temperature observed in Alaska reflected in the latest normals means that Fairbanks is “no longer a sub-Arctic climate in the widely used Köppen classification” for climate zones according to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Instead, it resides within a “warm summer continental” zone, he tweeted.

Warmer and wetter

The new normals reveal that the U.S. climate is not only becoming warmer but also wetter. Preliminary data showed a national precipitation average of 31.31 inches for 1991-2020, up by 0.34 inches over the 1981-2010 value of 30.97 inches. The 20th-century average was 29.94 inches.

“In the last three normals, we’ve been driving toward a much wetter environment in most of the U.S.,” Palecki said.

However, precipitation trends vary by region. Between 1981-2010 and 1991-2020, it turned wetter across much of the eastern two-thirds of the nation but drier across most of the Southwest.

The impact of climate change on precipitation is more complex than on temperature. Many parts of the United States are projected to get wetter over time, especially toward the northern states. However, rainfall and snowfall appear to be trending toward clusters of intensified precipitation, separated in some cases by longer dry periods, particularly in California. There are also signs that a multi-decade megadrought may have already set in over the southwest United States and northwest Mexico.

New climate ‘normal’ for Atlantic hurricanes shows more frequent and intense storms

The landscape-drying influence of hotter temperatures will tend to increase the effects of drought even where average precipitation doesn’t change.

“It’s not surprising that precipitation maps don’t show the same unmistakable fingerprint of climate change that the temperature maps do,” noted Rebecca Lindsey at “And yet, it’s probably not a coincidence that the last four maps in the series [shown below] … are nationally the four wettest-looking maps in the collection.”

The changing meaning of ‘normal’

NOAA’s U.S. climate averages are used in a wide array of settings. Weathercasters call on the values to tell us how a day’s temperatures compare to the norm for that calendar date. Some utilities and state regulators use climate averages when setting rates for the electricity and natural gas that goes into heating and cooling buildings. Farmers use the averages to help with long-range planning of what to plant and when.

“What we’re trying to do with climate normals is to put today’s weather in a proper context so we understand whether we’re above normal or below normal and also we’re trying to understand today’s climate so people know what to expect,” Palecki said.

The great challenge in depicting “normal” climate is that U.S. climate is no longer stationary, as increases in greenhouse gases push temperatures ever upward. That means even a recent 30-year average may not capture the true likelihood of a given temperature right now, especially as a set of climate norms approaches the end of its useful life.

Climate change is often hidden in the way we are shown temperature data

Small differences can have a major effect on interests such as utilities, where tiny temperature increments can translate into big costs.

Some resource managers are looking as much toward future change as they are toward the recent past, according to University of Oklahoma’s Renee McPherson. An associate professor of geography and environmental sustainability, McPherson also serves as university director for the South Central Climate Adaptation Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey.

“It used to be that the normals would give a great idea of what the climate has been like for someone’s 30-year career, so new resource managers could get up to speed quickly on how and why a more senior manager made the choices they did based on past climate,” McPherson said in an email.

“Now we’re seeing enough change from one decade to the next that we need to prepare managers differently. They need to understand these are not static, so the direction of change is as important, or more important, as the values of the normals themselves.”

NOAA has been experimenting with supplemental climate normals that may better reflect what to expect in the 2020s. Some researchers have argued that climatological periods shorter than 30 years could be more accurate for monthly temperature averages used in the near future. Thus, the new NOAA climate normals include a supplemental set of 15-year data for the period 2006-2020, a first for any climate-norms update.

Other nations around the world are also updating their climate norms to reflect the 1991-2020 period, as mandated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Until recently, the WMO recommended such updates each decade but required them only every 30 years. Thus, the last full worldwide update of national and local climate norms was for 1961-1990, a metaphorical lifetime ago in a world whose climate is rapidly changing.

* NOAA notes that while the new normals approximate climate averages, they involve complex statistical methods and processing to calculate.

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and journalist based in Boulder, Colo. His books include “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”



The Salton Sea is one of numerous new mining proposals in a global gold rush to find new sources of metals and minerals needed for electric cars and renewable energy.Credit…

By Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton

Photographs by Gabriella Angotti-Jones

  • May 6, 2021

Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers are preparing to start blasting and digging out a giant pit that will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a new domestic supply of an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy.

The mine, constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the near total reliance by the United States on foreign sources of lithium.

But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.

“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green, no matter how much marketing spin people put on it,” said Max Wilbert, who has been living in a tent on the proposed mine site while two lawsuitsseeking to block the project wend their way through federal courts.

That environmental toll has often been overlooked in part because there is a race underway among the United States, China, Europe and other major powers. Echoing past contests and wars over gold and oil, governments are fighting for supremacy over minerals that could help countries achieve economic and technological dominance for decades to come.

Developers and lawmakers see this Nevada project, given final approval in the last days of the Trump administration, as part of the opportunity for the United States to become a leader in producing some of these raw materials as President Biden moves aggressively to fight climate change. In addition to Nevada, businesses have proposed lithium production sites in California, OregonTennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina.

But traditional mining is one of the dirtiest businesses out there. That reality is not lost on automakers and renewable-energybusinesses.

“Our new clean-energy demands could be creating greater harm, even though its intention is to do good,” said Aimee Boulanger, executive director for the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that vets mines for companies like BMW and Ford Motor. “We can’t allow that to happen.”

This friction helps explain why a contest of sorts has emerged in recent months across the United States about how best to extract and produce the large amounts of lithium in ways that are much less destructive than how mining has been done for decades.

Just in the first three months of 2021, U.S. lithium miners like those in Nevada raised nearly $3.5 billion from Wall Street — seven times the amount raised in the prior 36 months, according to data assembled by Bloomberg, and a hint of the frenzy underway.

Some of those investors are backing alternatives including a plan to extract lithium from briny water beneath California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea, about 600 miles south of the Lithium Americas site.

At the Salton Sea, investors plan to use specially coated beads to extract lithium salt from the hot liquid pumped up from an aquifer more than 4,000 feet below the surface. The self-contained systems will be connected to geothermal power plants generating emission-free electricity. And in the process, they hope to generate the revenue needed to restore the lake, which has been fouled by toxic runoff from area farms for decades.

Businesses are also hoping to extract lithium from brine in ArkansasNevadaNorth Dakota and at least one more location in the United States.

The United States needs to quickly find new supplies of lithium as automakers ramp up manufacturing of electric vehicles. Lithium is used in electric car batteries because it is lightweight, can store lots of energy and can be repeatedly recharged. Analysts estimate that lithium demand is going to increase tenfold before the end of this decade as Tesla, VolkswagenGeneral Motors and other automakers introduce dozens of electric models. Other ingredients like cobalt are needed to keep the battery stable.

Even though the United States has some of the world’s largest reserves, the country today has only one large-scale lithium mine, Silver Peak in Nevada, which first opened in the 1960s and is producing just 5,000 tons a year — less than 2 percent of the world’s annual supply. Most of the raw lithium used domestically comes from Latin America or Australia, and most of it is processed and turned into battery cells in China and other Asian countries.

“China just put out its next five-year plan,” Mr. Biden’s energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, said in a recent interview. “They want to be the go-to place for the guts of the batteries, yet we have these minerals in the United States. We have not taken advantage of them, to mine them.”

In March, she announced grants to increase production of crucial minerals. “This is a race to the future that America is going to win,” she said.

So far, the Biden administration has not moved to help push more environmentally friendly options — like lithium brine extraction, instead of open pit mines. The Interior Department declined to say whether it would shift its stand on the Lithium Americas permit, which it is defending in court.

Mining companies and related businesses want to accelerate domestic production of lithium and are pressing the administration and key lawmakers to insert a $10 billion grant program into Mr. Biden’s infrastructure bill, arguing that it is a matter of national security.

“Right now, if China decided to cut off the U.S. for a variety of reasons we’re in trouble,” said Ben Steinberg, an Obama administration official turned lobbyist. He was hired in January by ​Piedmont Lithium, which is working to build an open-pit mine in North Carolina and is one of several companies that have created a trade association for the industry.

Investors are rushing to get permits for new mines and begin production to secure contracts with battery companies and automakers.

Ultimately, federal and state officials will decide which of the two methods — traditional mining or brine extraction — is approved. Both could take hold. Much will depend on how successful environmentalists, tribes and local groups are in blocking projects.

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Wading in a top-secret Catskills trout stream, David Coggins explains why using a Woolly Bugger on your line is like bringing a keg to a freshman dorm.

By Charles McGrath

May 3, 2021

  • David Coggins, whose book on fly-fishing, “The Optimist,” comes out from Scribner this week, has fished all over. For bass in Wisconsin, bonefish in the Bahamas, salmon in Canada, trout in Montana and Patagonia. But one of his favorite places to fish is a four-mile stretch of water in upstate New York belonging to a hundred-and-twenty-year-old club that maintains a Skull and Bones level of publicity paranoia. So let’s just say it’s somewhere in the Catskills, and that the property includes two waterfalls, a gorge, some lively rapids, a couple of deep pools, and what could be mistaken for the moss-lined walls of an ancient grotto. Indoors, the accommodations are flagrantly unassuming.
David Coggins
David CogginsIllustration by João Fazenda

Coggins spent a few days there last month, and had both good luck and bad. Fishing for trout in the spring can be trying. The water is high and cold, the fish grumpy and disinclined to rise. Some, newly arrived from the hatchery, seem stunned to find themselves in the wild, dining on bugs instead of pellets. They sometimes clump together, as if for companionship, and, seen from above, barely moving, all facing in the same direction, they resemble, in miniature, a wolf pack from a Second World War submarine movie.

On his second day, Coggins began by casting toward a man-made dam, built to create a nice feeding spot for trout. “There’s a sort of ‘Blade Runner’ aspect to this kind of fishing,” he said. “You know—what’s real, what’s artificial? What about stocking fish? Where do you draw the line?” He threw out a cast and added, “I just think of it all as part of the beauty and the absurdity of the sport.” A few minutes later, he was rewarded with a nice rainbow—a fish that in his book he calls the golden retriever of fish: beautiful, beloved, but maybe not the brightest of its kind.

Bearded, with longish wavy hair and a high forehead, Coggins looks like a character in a Chekhov play, and his fishing attire is old school. He favors waxed-cotton jackets, even though they’re less waterproof than Gore-Tex. His felt-bottomed Simms wading boots are practically antiques. On the other hand, he doesn’t tie his own flies but buys them, instead, from, and his rods are not the classic bamboo but fashioned of some substance so light, strong, and flexible that it must be mined on the planet Krypton. “In fly-fishing, there’s always a tension between purity and practicality,” he said. “Between artfulness and the desire to just catch a fish.”

Like a lot of fly fishermen, Coggins believes in a sort of hierarchy of difficulty or purity. Ideally, you want a trout to rise up and snatch a dry fly drifting on top of the water. If that doesn’t work, you can add a nymph to the line—a fly meant to look like an immature insect and weighted so that it sinks below the surface. Finally, worst case, you can use a streamer, resembling not a fly but a larger insect or a small fish. The streamer drops to the bottom and the angler keeps yanking on the line to make it look alive. In “The Optimist,” Coggins writes that pulling a streamer through a pool of fish is like “bringing a keg and a stack of red Solo cups to a freshman dorm.” It’s just one step above using real bait, and that, of course, is unthinkable. There’s a notorious streamer, called a Woolly Bugger, thought to be so unsporting that some fly shops are embarrassed to carry it. Coggins has a couple in his kit, but mostly for emergencies.

After lunch, Coggins caught a brown trout with a nymph, and then optimistically switched back to dry flies. He dropped them right where he wanted, into pools and back eddies, zinging the line out with the gravity-defying straightness that is the sign of an accomplished caster. “It’s not just about catching fish,” he said. “A good cast, a good drift in a good place—that to me is it.” After a while, though, he went back to nymphs, and then, after a few hours more, out came the streamers. It was late afternoon by then, and he was standing in a deep pool below a covered bridge. It was getting colder and, not long before, a drowned bear cub had drifted by. Maybe not the best of omens.

“I’m just going to make one more cast,” he said. “I’m not one of those people who can’t stop trying to catch one last fish.” He cast one last time and then a few more last times, until the sun was going down. On his final try, he caught a beautiful brown trout—not the monster size that browns sometimes grow to, but fourteen inches, with handsome black and red spots. In his book, Coggins compares trout to English aristocrats, and, if that’s the case, you would have to say that this one was a bit of a dandy. Coggins admired it for about a second and then let it go. ♦



In an important step toward medical approval, MDMA, the illegal drug popularly known as Ecstasy or Molly, was shown to bring relief to those suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder when paired with talk therapy.

Of the 90 people who took part in the new study, which is expected to be published later this month in Nature Medicine, those who received MDMA during therapy experienced a significantly greater reduction in the severity of their symptoms compared with those who received therapy and an inactive placebo. Two months after treatment, 67 percent of participants in the MDMA group no longer qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, compared with 32 percent in the placebo group.

MDMA produced no serious adverse side effects. Some participants temporarily experienced mild symptoms like nausea and loss of appetite.

“This is about as excited as I can get about a clinical trial,” said Gul Dolen, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research. “There is nothing like this in clinical trial results for a neuropsychiatric disease.”

Before MDMA-assisted therapy can be approved for therapeutic use, the Food and Drug Administration needs a second positive Phase 3 trial, which is currently underway with 100 participants. Approval could come as early as 2023.

Mental health experts say that this research — the first Phase 3 trial conducted on psychedelic-assisted therapy — could pave the way for further studies on MDMA’s potential to help address other difficult-to-treat mental health conditions, including substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, eating disordersdepressionend-of-life anxiety and social anxiety in autistic adults.

And, mental health researchers say, these studies could also encourage additional research on other banned psychedelics, including psilocybin, LSD and mescaline.

“This is a wonderful, fruitful time for discovery, because people are suddenly willing to consider these substances as therapeutics again, which hasn’t happened in 50 years,” said Jennifer Mitchell, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, and lead author of the new study.

But some mental health experts urged restraint. Allen James Frances, a professor emeritus and the former chair of psychiatry at Duke University, who was not involved in the new study, warned that new treatments “are never as wonderful as first they seem.”

“All new treatments in medicine have always had a temporary halo effect by virtue of being new and by promising more than they can possibly deliver,” Dr. Frances said.

Unlike traditional pharmaceuticals, MDMA does not act as a band-aid that tries to blunt symptoms of PTSD. Instead, in people with PTSD, MDMA combined with therapy seems to allow the brain to process painful memories and heal itself, Dr. Mitchell said.

Critically, MDMA taken in isolation, without therapy, does not automatically produce a beneficial effect.

“It’s not the drug — it’s the therapy enhanced by the drug,” said Rick Doblin, senior author of the study and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research group that sponsored and financed the clinical trials.

For this process to work, a person must be primed to engage with their trauma. Participants first undertook preparatory sessions with two trained therapists. Then in three sessions of eight-hours each, spaced a month apart, they received either an inactive placebo or MDMA. Neither the participants nor the therapists knew which. While most participants correctly guessed whether they received a placebo or MDMA, this did not undermine the study’s results or its methodology, which was agreed to in advance by the F.D.A.

Scott Ostrom, who participated in the study, had suffered from PTSD since returning home from his second deployment in Iraq in 2007. For more than a decade, he experienced debilitating nightmares. “Bullets would dribble out of the end of my gun, or I’d get separated from my team and be lost in a town where insurgents were watching me,” he said.

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