Thanks to its picturesque desert landscapes, gorgeous snow-draped mountain peaks, hot springs and a long list of national monuments, New Mexico is a popular U.S. destination for tourists. The state also served as the set for the TV show Breaking Bad, giving the “Land of Enchantment” slogan a whole new meaning.

After the show’s rise in popularity, more people trooped to Albuquerque—pushing New Mexico into one of the top holiday destinations for tourists from all around the world. At some point, there were talks of a Breaking Bad-economy in the region.

When tourists aren’t fulfilling their Breaking Bad fantasies, they are taking in the sights and sounds that have long enchanted visitors. Some of these include the Fajada Butte in the Chaco Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the picturesque scenery of the Taos Ski Valley during the Winter, and many more.

Unfortunately, climate change is threatening all of this. As the temperatures warm up, some of the main attractions in the region are losing their shine, and fewer tourists are ready to brave the blazing. The Land of Enchantment may no longer be as enchanting as it used to be very soon.

How Is the Climate Crisis Affecting New Mexico?

The climate crisis is changing fundamental weather patterns around the world. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has increased by 40% in comparison to the 1700s. This has led to drastic changes in temperatures, water availability and more. Here’s how the climate change affecting New Mexico:

Rising Temperatures, More Heat Extremes

From 1970 till date, the average annual temperature in New Mexico has increased by 0.6°F per decade. This translates to an increase of 2.7°F over the last 45 years. The state is now in the top six fastest-warming states in the U.S.

Reduced SnowPack and Stream Falls

With the shrinking snowpacks and earlier snow melts, the state is witnessing lower stream flows at vital times of the year leading to deeper economic and environmental problems in the region.

Low Reservoirs

Elephant Butte Lake, New Mexico | Photo Courtesy: Birdie Jaworski/flickr

The Elephant Butte Reservoir was nearly full in 1994, but today it is at less than 5% of its storage capacity. Farmers have been forced to turn to groundwater and other sources instead of relying on the reservoir for irrigation purposes.

Low Flow in the Rio Grande

The water flow in the Rio Grande River is directly tied to the quantity of snow in the mountains in Albuquerque, as well as the melting speeds per year. The activity in the river is a good barometer for checking the drought level in New Mexico. Since 2009, the region has been drier than average.

Between 2011 and 2013, the region was at its driest since 1895. The Rio Grande now stays dry for up to 9 months in a year around Southern New Mexico. In some quarters, there are fears that the Rio Grande may be headed for a permanent drought in the not too distant future if climate change continues at the same pace.

Severe Droughts

Water keeps White Sands National Park's dunes in place, but when conditions are dry the wind can carry the gypsum sand away. Photo Courtesy: NASA

Rainfall in New Mexico is now less frequent, coming in heavier deluges that trigger flooding. Additionally, the timing of precipitation is changing, which has caused a misalignment between the delivery of water supply, and water demand.

This has affected agriculture, as farmers are getting water supply when it is not needed while battling droughts when it is needed. Climate change has also made it difficult for snow to store water long enough to meet New Mexico’s water supply needs.

Increased Wildfires

By May 30, 2012, a wildfire burning in Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico had burned more of the landscape than any other fire in the state’s history. | NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team, Goddard Space Flight Center. Caption by Adam Voiland.

Over the last few years, wildfires have spread across New Mexico at an alarming scale. More than 70% of the population lives in areas that are at risk of wildfires, and the number of days with high wildfire potential in the area is expected to more than double by 2050 (in comparison to the start of the millennium) as temperatures continue to soar, and drought frequency grows.

Loss of Cultural Heritage

Climate change could affect New Mexico historical sites

The wild swings in precipitation, wildfires and flooding are damaging the sites that are an important part of New Mexico’s cultural heritage. It is now more difficult to protect some of the archaeological and ecological elements that contributed to New Mexico’s “Land of Enchantment” title. As the cases of extreme wildfires and flooding increases, these cultural heritage sites may be lost completely or rendered inaccessible.

New Mexico’s Rising Economic Risks from Climate Change

Extreme flooding and wildfires are already damaging livelihoods and properties across New Mexico. The loss of productivity is also on the rise as the pollution from wildfires has caused a reduction in air quality.

In such conditions, more people will visit the hospital with chest pains, heart problems, and respiratory problems. In terms of the numbers, climate change is posing a significant risk to New Mexico’s economy.

  • Climate change is causing a loss of $70 million annually in the agriculture and ranching sectors.
  • The total cost of climate change to the economy, in general, will rise to $3.3 billion per year by 2040.
  • Tourism, the state’s second-largest industry, will take a heavy hit as the revenues generated by the industry will only keep reducing with each passing year under the current trajectory. For example, as habitat for the fish species that attract 84,000 fishermen to the state continues to decline, most of them will look elsewhere, creating the potential for a loss of $100 million to the economy. Bird-watching will also be affected in a similar manner.
  • Climate change also poses a huge risk to New Mexico’s art and culture scene, which contributes billions of dollars to the state’s economy.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham Leads the Way

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set forth a climate change executive order aimed at analyzing the state’s contribution to climate change and reducing it significantly.

In January 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set forth a climate change executive order aimed at analyzing the state’s contribution to climate change and reducing it significantly. The executive order saw the launch of the New Mexico climate change task force.

Throughout 2019, the state’s legislature passed several bills that will make New Mexico one of the leading states in the US in terms of clean energy financing and improved energy efficiency.

In November 2019, the task force’s first report highlighted the different strides achieved in the state over Gov. Grisham’s first year in office. The highlights of the report show that the state is installing more solar energy in government buildings and providing incentives for the purchase of environmentally-friendly vehicles.

The Governor’s task force also plans to phase out the coal-fired San Juan generating station by 2022 and update the building codes to ensure more energy efficiency.

The U.S. Climate Alliance

In June 2017, the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement. This led to the formation of the U.S climate alliance by states that wanted to adhere to the resolutions in the agreement. California, Washington and New York were the first member states of the alliance, but New Mexico and others have joined to increase the number of participating states to 25.

The state joined the alliance in January 2019. As a part of the alliance, the state commits to:

  • A statewide goal of reducing GHG emissions by 45% below 2005 levels by 2030.
  • Creating new policies (or improving existing ones) to reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy.
  • Regular tracking and reporting of progress on the climate change front.

Clean Energy in New Mexico

In March 2019, New Mexico’s legislature passed a bill that will require all electricity from public utilities to come from carbon-free sources. Under the bill, the state must get 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, 80% by 2040, and 100% by 2045. Most of the new electricity is expected to come from wind and solar.

Students in New Mexico Calling for Action on Climate Change

The Governor Grisham-led administration’s climate-change message is spreading across the state as thousands of New Mexico students joined others in the US and around the globe in a September 2019 protest.

They demanded more action on rising global temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions. Many adults joined in the protests, and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller spoke at one of such rallies. The rally also attracted the support of U.S Senator Martin Heinrich.

Tribal Climate Change Efforts In New Mexico

The various tribes in New Mexico are also contributing their quota to combating climate change. Some of the tribal climate change programs in New Mexico include:

  • Isleta Energy Conservation Program
  • Jemez Pueblo Renewable Energy—Solar, Utility-scale Solar Plant
  • Jicarilla Apache Nation Project to Develop an Energy Strategy and Conduct Energy Audits
  • Mescalero Apache Tribe Fuels Treatment Project

Across New Mexico, more than a dozen tribes have some form of existing or new climate-change related programs.

Conclusion

Climate change is a threat to New Mexico’s economic development and its magnificent natural environment. If the effects of climate change are ignored, the state could lose a great deal of its allure while livelihoods evaporate under the blazing temperatures. The state, under Governor Grisham, has implemented several policies that will help in the fight against the rapidly changing climate.

However, there must be will from all the parties involved to ensure that the goals of these policies are actualized while creating even more legislation. Future administrations must also build on the efforts of the current government to avoid undoing all the hard work that has gone into making New Mexico increasingly environmentally-aware.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.