In Parched Southwest, Warm Spring Renews Threat of ‘Megadrought’ ~ NYT

Rapid melting this year showed that good snowpack doesn’t necessarily translate into full reservoirs.


Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times


LOVELAND PASS, Colo. — Here at 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide, only vestiges of the winter snowpack remain, scattered white patches that have yet to melt and feed the upper Colorado River, 50 miles away.

That’s normal for mid-June in the Rockies. What’s unusual this year is the speed at which the snow went. And with it went hopes for a drought-free year in the Southwest.

“We had a really warm spring,” said Graham Sexstone, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey. “Everything this year has melted really fast.”

The Southwest has been mired in drought for most of the past two decades. The heat and dryness, made worse by climate change, have been so persistent that some researchers say the region is now caught up in a megadrought, like those that scientists who study past climate say occurred here occasionally over the past 1,200 years and lasted 40 years or longer.

Even a single season of drought is bad news for the Southwest, where agriculture, industry and millions of people rely on the region’s two major rivers, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, and their tributaries for much of their water. Dry conditions also shrivel crops, harm livestock and worsen wildfires.

But droughts, even long ones, eventually end, when the natural variability of climate results in a few “good,” meaning wet, years in a row. So after a relatively cool and wet spring last year followed by a decent snowpack in the fall and winter, there was some optimism that 2020 might be remembered as the year the long Southwestern drought started to fade.

But then came April and May, which were warm and dry, leading to rapid melting and runoff.

Normally, Dr. Sexstone said, measurements of stream flow at gauges in the region would slowly climb to a peak and then drop off gradually as the season progressed.

“This year it seemed like it peaked and then plummeted,” he said.

Becky Bolinger, a drought specialist at Colorado State University and the assistant state climatologist, said the lack of new snow in late spring affected the rate of melting. As snow is exposed to the sun it warms and nears the melting point. If new snow falls, that lowers the temperature, stalling the process. But without any new snow, the melting continues unimpeded.

“When you turn the heat on early in spring and shut off the snow altogether, that allows that snowpack to melt at an extremely fast rate,” she said.

Couple that with soil that is exceptionally dry and vegetation that is thirsty, and the result is that less of the snowmelt at places like Loveland Pass ends up in the Colorado and, eventually, in reservoirs along the river, like Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border.

“Runoff was not as high as it should have been,” Dr. Bolinger said. “So stream flows are struggling.”

Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

Early, rapid melting of snowpack has been common recently in the Rio Grande basin, said Shaleene B. Chavarria, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey in New Mexico. Being farther south, it is hotter and more arid than much of the Colorado basin.

“We’ve had some years of good snowpack,” Ms. Chavarria said. “But even though we’ve had those good years, the stream flow has been very low.”

It’s not just the basins west of the Continental Divide that have experienced severe drought made worse by warming. A study published in May about the country’s largest river basin, the Upper Missouri, where snowmelt on the eastern side of the divide at Loveland Pass eventually ends up, showed that warming has affected runoff over the last few decades and increased the severity of droughts, including one from 2000 to 2010.

After this spring’s early melt in the Southwest, the hot and dry weather continued in June across much of the region, according to the United States Drought Monitor, a project of several federal agencies and the University of Nebraska.

In its latest analysis, the monitoring group reported that the southern half of Colorado, northern and eastern New Mexico, Northern Arizona and nearly all of Utah were in moderate to extreme drought, with varying degrees of water shortages and crop and pasture damage. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its most recent climate forecast, said the drought would likely persist through the summer.

Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, was the lead researcher on a study published in Aprilthat found that conditions in the Southwest from 2000 to 2018 were comparable to several megadroughts since A.D. 800. It said global warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases was a major contributor, turning what would have been a moderate drought into an “emerging megadrought.”

Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

At the time the study was published, Dr. Williams said, there was a possibility that a wet May would “bail 2020 out” and perhaps be the beginning of the end for the drought.

“But that didn’t happen in the Southwest,” he said. ”It’s looking like more of the same.”

Drought can be complex, a function not only of high temperatures and lack of precipitation but also of factors like humidity, wind and cloud cover. Soil moisture and evaporation of water from the ground surface and from the leaves of vegetation, a process called transpiration, are important.

Dust that settles on snow can have an impact, by absorbing sunlight and warming, which speeds melting. And sublimation, by which a solid (snow) directly becomes a gas (water vapor), bypassing the liquid phase (water), plays a role as well.

But scientists are still learning how these various factors interact, and the relative importance of each. In some cases there is little data to analyze, and much of the research relies on computer models.

There are relatively few direct measurements of soil moisture, for example, even though it can greatly affect runoff as it likely did this year in the Southwest.

Soils were already very dry last fall, Dr. Bolinger said, because the annual late-summer rains in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern Colorado largely failed to materialize.

As winter set in, the soil froze, remaining dry while the snow built up on it. Then, once the snow began to melt, the soil had to be replenished first, Dr. Bolinger said.

Dr. Sexstone’s work to better understand snowpack is part of a broader effort within the geological survey to more accurately quantify and forecast runoff, given increasing uncertainty about water supplies in a warming and more drought-prone world.

At Loveland Pass, with a light dusting of snow falling around him, he demonstrated a basic technique used to study snowpack. Pulling a shovel from his backpack, he dug a pit in a patch of snow down to solid ground. In this case the pit was only 3 feet deep, but in midwinter in the mountains they can reach up to 15.

Credit…Benjamin Rasmussen for The New York Times

Dr. Sexstone then inserted thermometers at various levels in the side of the pit, and, using a scoop and a scale, took samples of the snow at each level. By weighing each sample he could determine its density and how much water would result when it melted.

Was This Ancient Taoist the First Philosopher of Disability? ~ NYT

Zhuangzi pushed back against the idea that “normal” is good and difference is bad 2,500 years ago.


By John Altmann and



In one of his philosophical parables, the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (fourth century B.C.) describes a man he calls Splay-limb Shu. This man’s “chin is sunk in his belly,” Zhuangzi writes. “His shoulders are above his head, and pinched together so they point to the sky. His five organs are on top, his thighs tight against his ribs.” In Zhuangzi’s era as in our own, most people would consider Splay-limb Shu to be unfortunate.

But Zhuangzi, whose work frequently challenged society’s norms, sees things differently. He notes, for instance, that Shu is in no danger of being conscripted into the military or pressed into forced labor. Instead, he lives contentedly in his community, supporting himself by “plying a needle and taking in laundry.” Shu, Zhuangzi concludes, is “able to keep himself alive and to live out the years Heaven gave him” precisely because he is different from others.

Even today, this insight is striking. Zhuangzi poses the idea that Shu’s difference — one we would classify today as a disability — is not a misfortune, and in doing so challenges an assumption that has existed in cultures of all kinds for millenniums.

It is hard to pinpoint where this idea — that it is inherently bad to be disabled — originated, but in the West, examples go as far back as ancient Greece. The linking of virtue and beauty with “normality” appears in Plato’s account of Socrates’ dialogue with Crito, in which Socrates asserts that “the good life, the beautiful life and the just life are the same” and that life is not “worth living with a body that is corrupted and in bad condition.”

Plato’s student Aristotle later argued explicitly in “Politics” that “no deformed child should be raised,” but should instead be left to die of exposure. Islamic, Jewish and Christian philosophers later found Aristotle’s normative conception of human nature congenial to the mainstream Abrahamic traditions: The ideal form of the human being exists in the mind of God, who “created man in his own image”; differences or variations from this norm are to be considered deviant. It is not coincidental that the Bible asserts that one may not become a priest if they are “a blind man, or a lame … or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye.” (Leviticus 21:18-20 KJV.)

In the Chinese context, though, Zhuangzi is arguing against a Confucian conception of “normality” that, like Aristotelianism, is teleological: A higher power, Heaven, decrees what “human nature” is, and human nature determines all the normative facts, such as how many limbs a human should have, standards of physical beauty, tastes in food and music, and morality. This view implies that to be “different” is to be defective.

We see the target of Zhuangzi’s critique in another passage of his writing, in which Confucius meets an amputee, Shushan No-Toes. Confucius is at first dismissive of No-Toes, but then, turning to his own disciples, condescendingly praises No-Toes for doing so well, despite his disability. Although it is supposed to have occurred 2,500 years ago, the pattern of the exchange will be familiar to those labeled “disabled” today. (See John Altmann’s 2016 essay “I Don’t Want to Be ‘Inspiring.’”)

But No-Toes explains that from the perspective of the universe, there is no real distinction between nondisabled and disabled: “There is nothing that heaven doesn’t cover, nothing that earth doesn’t bear up.” It is Confucius, No-Toes suggests, who is really “disabled” because of his inability to see past conventional distinctions. The very concept of disability, then, is “socially contingent,” defined by a society’s limitations, not the true worth of an individual — an argument found in the work of several contemporary philosophers of disability, including Shelley Tremain, Joe Stramondo, Melinda Hall and Cal Montgomery.

Zhuangzi understands virtue as manifested by living in accordance with nature. Corruption occurs, according to Zhuangzi, only when one deviates from nature’s path. If nature determines that a person has one arm, splayed limbs or a hunched back, the person can embrace these changes and harmonize with them. As Zhuangzi says, “Virtue [takes] no form.”

Zhuangzi is a creative and flexible author, so it is no surprise that later in the same work, Confucius is ironically appropriated as the spokesman of Zhuangzi’s own position. This Confucius says he wants to become the disciple of an amputee, “Royal Nag,” because he “looks at the way things are one [or whole] and does not see what they’re missing. He looks at losing a foot like shaking off dust.” Royal Nag (and Zhuangzi) saw, long before contemporary epistemologists, that similarity and difference are standpoint dependent: “Looked at from their differences, liver and gall are as far apart as the states of Chu and Yue. Looked at from their sameness, the ten thousand things are all one.” In short, the common assumption that it is “bad” to be “disabled” makes sense only if we project our parochial and historically contingent human values onto the fabric of the universe.

One response to this critique would be that disabilities are bad, not because they are violations of the objective teleological structure of the universe, but because they are inefficient. Those who are “disabled” are simply less functional, less able to achieve their goals, than those who are “normal.” This leads easily to the conclusion that eliminating disabilities would be better, not just for society but for the disabled themselves. Contemporary technology seems to have put this almost in our grasp. With the advent of both genetic screening technologies and Crispr gene editing, we are approaching an age in which we may be able to design the human body; perhaps soon the new normal for the American family will be designer babies. We may be approaching a world in which illness is eradicated, a world of physical and mental harmony and homogeneity among all peoples. This, many would argue, is surely the stuff of a utopia — a “brave new world.”

The seductiveness of this argument illustrates the danger of the hegemony of instrumental reasoning — reasoning employed to find the most efficient way to a given goal. It is an important aspect of wisdom, but it also carries the temptation, especially in modern capitalist society, to reduce all of rationality to means-end efficiency. In some cases, means-end efficiency results in an inappropriate and inhuman standard.

To think that we have moved beyond this pitfall would be nice, but we haven’t. It is still very much with us. As the coronavirus pandemic began to overwhelm medical capacity in the United States in March, the disability activist and writer Ari Ne’eman argued that the triage guidelines that certain states were putting into use indicated that it was preferable to let a disabled person die simply because it would require more resources to keep that person alive. The principle of granting equal value of human lives, Ne’eman wrote, would then be “sacrificed in the name of efficiency.”

We do not mean, in this brief essay, to dismiss all of philosophy outside of Zhuangzi. The sayings of Confucius include a passage in which the master is a respectful and congenial host to a blind music master (“Analects,” 15.42), and the later Confucian tradition includes the stirring admonition, “All under Heaven who are tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows or widowers — all are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to.” Readers of the New Testament will recognize this as a core value in the teachings of Jesus. In fact, many figures and institutions in the Abrahamic traditions have been at the forefront of caring for the disabled, precisely by appealing to the Platonic view that humans’ ultimate value lies in their immaterial souls rather than their contingent material embodiments.

But in this time of rampant sickness and social inequality, and given our fundamental duty to extend equal treatment, compassion and care for others, we think Zhuangzi is an important and insightful guide, a Taoist gadfly, if you will, to challenge our conventional notions of flourishing and health. With the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act approaching, this ancient Chinese Taoist reminds us that it is the material conditions of a society that determine and define disability. We have the power to change both those material conditions and the definition of disability.

John Altmann (@iron_intellect) writes about philosophy for general audiences and is a contributor to the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series of books. Bryan W. Van Norden(@bryanvannorden) holds a chair in philosophy at Vassar College and is the author most recently of “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto.”

Supreme Court deals major blow to Keystone XL project ~ CNN



Washington (CNN)The Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for several pipeline projects to proceed under a fast-track permitting process but excluded the controversial Keystone XL expansion from their ruling, forcing major delays.

Though the case is a partial win for the Trump administration, the exclusion of Keystone XL is a major defeat for a President who made good on a campaign promise to move forward with the project through executive order.
A federal judge in May sided with environmental groups, requiring that new oil and gas pipelines must undergo a lengthy permitting and regulation process in order to build across bodies of water.
That judge’s ruling canceled the so-called “Nationwide Permit 12” for several new pipelines, which authorized and fast-tracked work on pipelines that run across bodies of water. That ruling stated that the Army Corps of Engineers did not adequately consider the projects’ environmental impact on endangered species. The ruling required the projects that received such a permit to stop construction while the environmental impact study was completed.
The Supreme Court on Monday invalidated that lower court ruling in part, allowing many projects to go ahead while the environmental reviews are done, but excluded the Keystone XL. The Keystone XL pipeline must still abide by the arduous environmental review process, the justices ruled.
If lengthy enough, that process could jeopardize the pipeline’s existence, pending the outcome of the 2020 election. Democrat Joe Biden has pledged to rescind the permit for Keystone if he wins.
The targeting of Keystone by the Supreme Court represents the third loss in a week for Trump-supported pipeline projects. In January 2017, President Donald Trump signed executive actions that advanced both Dakota Access and the Keystone XL pipelines.
Earlier Monday, a district court ruled that the Dakota Access Pipeline must shut down by August 5 during an in-depth environmental review of the controversial project. The rare shutdown of an operating pipeline marks a major win for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and environmental groups that have fought fiercely for years against the oil pipeline. Opponents have argued the pipeline could contaminate drinking water and destroy burial and prayer sites of Native Americans.
And on Sunday, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy announced the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline initially announced in 2014 that had been set to stretch hundreds of miles across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
The Keystone XL expansion project is no stranger to controversy. Facing pressure from environmental groups, President Barack Obama vetoed legislation that would have approved the project in February 2015 and rejected a presidential permit from the company attempting to build the project later that year. And in 2017, a total of 210,000 gallons of oil leaked from the existing Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota.
Right now, the Keystone Pipeline system stretches more than 2,600 miles from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, east into Manitoba, Canada, and then down to Texas, according to parent company TransCanada. That pipeline already functions and transports crude oil from Canada. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Hardisty down to Steele City, Nebraska, would complete the entire proposed system by cutting through Montana and South Dakota.

Dakota Access Pipeline to Shut Down Pending Review, Federal Judge Rules ~ NYT

The ruling, a victory for the Native American and environmentalist groups who oppose the pipeline, said that it must be emptied of oil by Aug. 5.

Credit…Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune, via Associated Press

The Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil route from North Dakota to Illinois that has inspired intense protests and legal battles, must shut down pending an environmental review and be emptied of oil by Aug. 5, a district court ruled on Monday.

The decision, which could be subject to appeal, is a victory for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Native American and environmental groups who have fought the project for years, and a significant defeat for President Trump, who has sought to keep the Dakota Access Pipeline alive.

“Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline,” Mike Faith, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said in a statement.

“This pipeline should have never been built here,” he added. “We told them that from the beginning.”

The ruling, by Judge James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, is the latest twist in a long-running legal battle. It essentially vacates a federal permit that had allowed the pipeline to operate while the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which had granted the permits for the pipeline, conducted an extensive environmental impact review.

Energy Transfer, the Texas company that owns the pipeline, said in a statement on Monday that it would file a motion to stay the decision, and if that failed, appeal to a higher court.

“We will be immediately pursuing all available legal and administrative processes and are confident that once the law and full record are fully considered, Dakota Access Pipeline will not be shut down and that oil will continue to flow,” it said.

In his opinion, Judge Boasberg wrote that the court was “mindful of the disruption such a shutdown will cause” but that it had to consider the “potential harm each day the pipeline operates.”

“This is shocking news,” said Ron Ness, the president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, adding that the pipeline has operated reliably for years, and that the ruling would hurt the state’s economy and encourage other, less safe means of oil transportation.

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