Apocalypse No: Claims That Metro Phoenix Is Doomed Because of Climate Change Are Greatly Exaggerated

Categories: Cover Story

apocalypse.jpg
Jon Sitch
A scorching, 120-degree breeze stirs dust in the streets before passing through the windowless ruins of former mansions on the flanks of Camelback Mountain.

The largest ghost town in history extends to every horizon of the Valley of the Sun -- now a superheated no man's land of crumbling walls, dead trees, and dry, debris-filled pits that used to be swimming pools. Only a few settlements remain, mostly to provide services for people passing through.

The date is January 1, 2114.

Phoenix, like the mythical bird it was named after, has died once again. Only there will be no hope-affirming resurrection this time.

As the Hohokam abandoned the area in the 1400s following a good run of more than a millennium, modern settlers also now have fled.

The catastrophe didn't happen overnight. It followed decades of little to no flow from the Colorado River, extended drought in the Gila and Salt watersheds, and the pumping of all groundwater. The southwestern United States was seen as the bull's-eye of climate change in the early 21st century, and central Arizona was slammed with an epic drought as bad as or worse than anything in the prehistoric record.

Time-travel back to 2014: Warnings of such a bleak future are sounding.
Looking into their crystal balls, some environmentalists and climate experts envision this science-fiction-like destiny for the region, give or take a few decades. At best, they see a region beset by extreme global-warming effects that spur not total abandonment, perhaps, but an economic tailspin, population decline, and far fewer days of pleasant weather for the hardy souls who choose to remain here.

"Temperatures could regularly hit the 130s in Phoenix by the second half of this century due to human-caused climate change," University of Arizona climate-change scientist Jonathan Overpeck told an Arizona legislative panel in 2009.

The question isn't whether the manmade Colorado River reservoirs Lake Mead and Lake Powell will go dry, it's when, Overpeck said. And it might happen by 2050. Economic calamity would result.

"Once the Central Arizona Project [canal] goes dry for one year, our state is dead," Overpeck warned. "People won't want to live here anymore."

In the 2010 book Dead Pool, geologist James Lawrence Powell offers a more comprehensively bleak future for the Valley than the one presented. It says it will happen in the 2020s.

Following a water emergency and economic collapse, Powell describes how residents will flee: "Businesses and families begin to abandon Phoenix, creating a Grapes of Wrath-like exodus in reverse. Long lines of vehicles clog the freeways, heading east toward the Mississippi and north toward Oregon and Washington. Burning, hot, parched, and broke, the city that rose from the ashes achieves its apogee and falls back toward the fire."

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Wikimedia Commons/Joe Mabel
Andrew Ross
A 2011 book about Phoenix, Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World's Least Sustainable City, paints a gloomy portrait of an area burdened by insurmountable challenges. The author, Andrew Ross, a New York University professor of social and cultural analysis, plays up the apocalyptic visions of future Phoenix for full effect.

Ross' book quotes Jeff Williamson, former director of the Phoenix Zoo who now lives in Los Angeles, stating that modern civilization based on self-destructive human decisions will fall faster here than anywhere else.

"I hope that Phoenix goes down to about 40,000 people," Williamson is quoted as saying.
Ross shares with readers the belief of San Francisco essayist Rebecca Solnit, who stated: "Phoenix will be like the Jericho or Ur of the Chaldees, with the shriveled relics of golf courses and the dusty hulls of swimming pools added on."

Recent doomsayers include conservationist William deBuys, who lives on a remote farm in New Mexico and imagines Phoenicians "taking the road out of town" sooner rather than later -- perhaps "one or several decades" from now.

"If cities were stocks, you'd want to short Phoenix," says the first line of a widely published March 14 op-ed by deBuys, author of 2011's A Great Aridness.

Though the article originally was headlined "Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs: We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries," it was picked up by countless blogs and Internet news sites and placed under headlines like, "Phoenix May Not Survive Climate Change" (salon.com) and "Could Phoenix Soon Become Uninhabitable?" (thenation.com).

Surrounded by blackened wildlands scorched by fire and plagued by epic dust storms that "bring life to a standstill," deBuys' future Phoenix is Hell on Earth.

After describing a litany of challenges faced by the country's 13th-largest metro area, deBuys concludes that when Valley residents "clog the interstates heading for greener, wetter pastures, more than the brutal heat of a new climate paradigm will be driving them away. The breakdown of cooperation and connectedness will spur them along, too."

Locally, the Arizona Republic has jumped on the Phoenix-is-doomed bandwagon.

Say goodbye to the beautiful autumns and winters we love, according to a November 2012 Republic article by Michael Clancy: "Ultimately, in a worst-case scenario, the experts predict a 'summer' season running from April to January, with temperatures near or above 100 degrees."

The most disturbing thing about all these predictions is that a vast number of people believe them -- even though they're full of hot air.


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31 comments
BigBob
BigBob

The claims may be exaggerated, but that does not mean they are altogether false.  We have the data.  This really isn't that hard to see.  Turn on your evening news and notice how often we post record highs.  Then look up what the historic record highs are for any given date; they're all within the last 10 years.  "We" developed in every direction ten years ago, laying down asphalt and packing as many cookie cutter houses in as we could.  The outlying citrus farms are long gone.  "We" are still on the cookie cutter trend, and building in every direction.  Less and less space for plant life.  If we keep doing the same things, like we are, it can only get worse.       

arizonaeagletarian
arizonaeagletarian

Will people still want to live here when summer high temps routinely hit 130F? That may depend on the prospects for SOLAR energy as well as adequate water supply. Holed up in our homes or schools or offices far more than we do now.

I could have sworn I've seen ASU's Global Institute of Sustainability abbreviated "GIOS", not SOS. Where did Stern get that one?


Only touching on desalination of sea water from the Gulf of California in passing, I wonder how much energy desalination takes. Wouldn't that require an awful lot of electricity? Wouldn't SOLAR be the most logical place to look to develop that energy?


Even granting all of Sterns caveats, it all depends on whether massive numbers of people will still want to live here in a scenario where highs exceed 100F for 9 or 10 months every year.

How well will crops adapt to the higher night and day time temps? Stern says farmers will be able to produce more produce with less water. I'll grant that vision for agricultural technology, but how will trees and crops withstand persistent 130F summer days with lows rarely dipping below 100?.


Water, food supply (which depends on water) and energy -- there are way too many open questions to reasonably be able to say with the certainty that Stern does that Phoenix will still be thriving by 2114.

Stern seems to have set about to debunk doomsday climate scenarios, and may have partially succeeded. But he didn't make a very strong case for a thriving Valley of the Unbearably Intense Sun.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"The campuses' square footage has grown by 26 percent since 2007. All of Crow's work will be in vain if fears of unsustainability become reality by the time the current students are grandparents."

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"Though climate studies do reveal a likelihood of reduced river flows"

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"Nancy Selover, Arizona's official state climatologist"

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Funny to hear libertarians who pooh-pooh energy efficient light bulbs champion water-efficient toilets.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"New development would continue." This is the politics of this article.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

"A few more degrees won't matter" -- it will if you're farming/gardening.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

I like how the sentence ""worst-case scenarios are not likely" can exist in the same year we crashed heat records in the summer and in the winter.

Krazy Bill
Krazy Bill

i had expected better from the New Times.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Also, MAG? Really? That's your expert? They never met a freeway they didn't love...

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Developers: please keep coming here so we can keep selling you property!

Krazy Bill
Krazy Bill

i read this tonight; boosterism, that's all it is.

Tyburn Gallows
Tyburn Gallows

Damn, I enjoyed that 82 degrees yesterday. Did you?

DavidNutzuki
DavidNutzuki

News Editors; 

Get up to date:

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

 *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.

 *Obama had not mentioned the crisis in two State of the Unions addresses. 

I believe history will look back upon this Reefer Madness of climate blame as a pure war crime and child abuse for goose stepping billions of innocent children to the greenhouse gas ovens of a knowingly exaggerated climate crisis. Not one scientist EVER said it will be "unavoidable" like they say comet hits are and almost all of their research was into effects not causes of an assumed to be real crisis. Maybe the real crime was those of us who chose to work so hard to believe in this misery and issue our own children CO2 death threats to a crisis we believed at the grunt of a headline. How can history not brand us all as end of the world freaks? Hopefully those of us who helped perpetrate 30 years of needless CO2 panic (news editors) will have the legacy of their grandkids explaining to their kids how they were all condemned so easily and with such sickening childish glee.

Science could end this debate instantly just by agreeing one way or the other from their consensus of just "could be" a cataclysmic climate crisis because there is no such thing as a little tiny catastrophic climate crisis so it's a yes or a no; Is a climate crisis from Human CO2 inevitable instead of just probable after 30 years of research?


fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@BigBob   Big Boob  "We have the data"  --- fucking moron, who has the data?  You and Al Gore?  Temperature records have been kept for the last 130 years.  Temperatures on earth have been going up and down for the last 4 1/2 billion years.  Fucking illiterate hoser.  

gmanator31
gmanator31

It could be worse. You could be holed up in your little cubby hole called a house in cold ass Saint Louis where I live lol! Except here in STL you would be holed up for 6 months, not Phoenix's 3!

Believe me dude, I've lived in both cities, and Phoenix beats STL by an astronomical unit lol!

ray.stern
ray.stern moderator

@arizonaeagletarian Hi, and thanks for writing. As my article suggests, (and state climatologist Selover backs up), the prospect of the sort of heat you're talking about is also quite unlikely. A few degrees hotter, maybe, but not nine months with highs over 100, and not routine 130-degree days. The highest temp ever recorded in Phoenix, 122, was 24 years ago. If Phoenix ever starts having "persistent" 120-degree days, the notion of persistent 130-degree days someday might become believable! Experts told me that climate change would be more like moving Phoenix (average elevation 1,124 feet) to a more southern latitude, not moving it to Death Valley, which is below sea level. One other thing I couldn't squeeze into the article is that a few folks told me that future buildings will be designed to limit the heat-island effect, meaning the nights might be cooler in Phoenix in, say, 20 or 30 years than they are now.


GIOS is the Global Institute. SOS is the School of Sustainability. As in, "All new freshmen take part in Camp SOS, which provides students with an introduction to the School of Sustainability, their major, faculty, staff, and their peers." -- http://schoolofsustainability.asu.edu/undergraduate/sos-camp


Lastly, I did ask experts about whether solar was a good energy source for desalination plants. The answer was "no," because desal apparently takes a lot of continuous energy, which solar doesn't provide. One possibility suggested by a physics professor I know is that solar could pump water to a large reservoir at the top of the hill, and when clouds pass overhead or at night, water would be released and used for hydro-electric power. I suppose that concept could be mated with a desal plant. (I'll be writing about that professor's ideas in a blog post soon...)


Happy holidays, everyone. And stay cool!

gmanator31
gmanator31

I thought it was a rather well informed and researched article! Very entertaining too!

The fact is that he is stating the obvious how it is not very fashionable to not believe in all of the modern climatology hype!

I've done extensive research on this topic and not only do I agree with the author, but I also have been telling people this for years!

Do yourself and most of those that have to listen to you a favor. Please put down the pot and acid for a solid year to get your head straight! Not everything in life is built around left wing dooms day, emo, hipsters saying how righteous (Ironically) that they are!

BigBob
BigBob

@fishingblues @BigBob  It's funny, I actually stated how one could, so to speak, "look up" the aforementioned data.  Either you are too stupid to understand what something that simple means, or you are a pathetic internet troll who tries to politicize everything.  Next time you're at the library trolling on their internet computers ask one of the nice ladies who works there to show you how to look it up.  Or, continue to try to make everything in your life about all the small minded political hot button issues that make you so angry.  Either way you are clearly a pathetic, worthless shit stain of a human being.  I take solace seeing how angry your ignorance makes you.  With ignorance comes anger. 

FRONTERA
FRONTERA

@fishingblues@BigBob yes gore won the 2000 electon ,bush stole it with  republican US SUPREME  COURT . If you don't think this planet is n trouble from unfeatered STATE CAPITALISM (you can suck the KOOKE BROS ) jaPAN  FUKAHIMA ,eat that tuna fishing blues ,radio active in your guts. Let me tell you ,you wallst. CAP.PIG... IM about to put the big bet on ,and go SHORT THE SP500 ,JUST LIKE JOE KENNEDY,BUST TIME HA HA ,GETTIN  HORNEY THINKIN BOUT ALL THE MONEY I GONNA MAKE  WHEN YOUR 401 K GOES BUST....PONZI SCHEME  CNBC..

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

@fishingblues @BigBob fishingblues, your appalling lack civility is exceeded only by your obvious inability to respond in an intelligent and articulate manner.  Fucking asswipe!

royalphoenix
royalphoenix

@ray.stern The US Navy has desalination plants on board their ships. I drank that water for a year. Desalination will be mired in political red tape for decades. peace

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@fishingblues <== the ignorant uneducated retard who doesn't know the difference between believes and beliefs now wants to teach the world everything he knows about science.


ROTFLMAO !!





fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@BigBob @fishingblues Boob - angry?  dumb fuck - I suppose you think I'm a "hater "also.  You sound just like all of the other junior high girls.

If you don't think the crapola being put out as fact, relative to "global warming", isn't political and money motivated, than your big old melon of a head is way up your big old universe of an ass.  

Jazus!  You stupid fucking liberals are gullible.  

fishingblues
fishingblues topcommenter

@1wayfaringpilgrim @fishingblues @BigBob 


Well now fari, I suppose your response and "appalling lack of civility" is exempt from what you claim because, well, it is from you.


I find it difficult to respond in an "intelligent" fashion when the statement "we have the data" was so patently absurd.


Now, prove to the listening audience how "intelligent" you are by explaining exactly where I have been inarticulate.  numbnuts!


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