Rain and Shine

rain in NMThe young IRS auditor looked across at my dad’s client and said, “You’ve claimed drought losses here, but you had twelve inches of rain last year.”

The old rancher’s West Texas place had been homesteaded by his grandfather, and ranched by succeeding generations. He looked at the youngster and replied, “Yes sir, that was one helluva storm!”

Droughts and floods are not uncommon in any one given year. The survivors have seen it all.

The Same Was True For Arizona

It had been a wet winter with lots of flooding across northern Arizona, and the Navajo had suffered from impassible roads, and lack of drinking water and firewood. At the time, the Navajo resisted ’emergency planning’ and stockpiling for disasters, since it might bring on the very event you feared. It was kinda like pointing at something; you never knew if some witch or demon might think you were calling it to you, and bring you misfortune.

By summer, fields of flowers bloomed for the first time in years and the Little Colorado floodplain was dry as I led a consultant along a proposed pipeline route. My government pickup usually did okay cross-country and the consultant had a new Land Rover complete with 4-WD, winch, and air conditioning. The ground was flat and mostly bare, revealing cracks in the desiccated surface where the pooled water from last winter had finally dried. The surface looked like a turtle shell with gaps up to an inch between the plates.

We had traveled a couple of miles when my pickup stopped slowly without warning. The engine was still running in gear, but nothing was moving. I tried reverse, but nothing happened. Sammy pushed to open his door, but it wouldn’t budge. He then climbed out his window and reported that the surface had cracked and the truck was mired to its axles. The surface had dried to about three inches in depth, but below that was gooey mud – gumbo.

Our consultant had stopped hundred yards back, so we hiked over and explained the situation. We could ride back to the phone at the trading post a few miles away, but he was confident that his vehicle (superior to our beat up government pickup) could pull ours out with the winch. We walked the end of the cable as far as it would go, then he edged up to where we could attach it to the truck.

In extra-low gear, he gently eased back until the cable tightened; he slowly accelerated and the Land Rover broke through the surface up to its hubs. Neither Sammy nor I reacted outwardly, but we worked to control ourselves from looking at each other. I think the consultant took it a little personally; he didn’t talk much.

On the walk back to the trading post I was able to study the cracked surface and marvel at how it had sealed off the deeper soils to allow them to stay saturated. Sammy and I discussed how over the previous years there was a drought, but then it had flooded. The extremes were remarkable to me, but old hat to Sammy and the other Navajo.

It struck me that the energy it took to dry out that three inches of mud — the unbridled power of the sun was enormous. It seared us every day as we went about the reservation, slowing down the people and animals alike. Solar power presented a clear opportunity to capture the sun’s energy, but the technology and costs to harness it were prohibitive in the 1970s.

Solar power can help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and combat climate change. The effectiveness of solar panels is increasing, the costs of production are dropping, and today it is likely a good alternative power source for remote areas with few options and a supplemental source with other options.

There are questions about unintended consequences and solar power on a large scale that need to be answered. Capturing solar energy on power-generating panels has a local impact. Whatever ecologic system existed where the panels are located is changed due to surface disturbance and lack of sunshine. On a small scale, this is unlikely to be ecologically important; however, on a large scale it may have undesirable impacts. For example, massive solar farms in the Nevada desert have disrupted the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise.

There are plenty of human-created surface areas where local ecology has already been disturbed that may be better adapted to solar power generation. Orientation, ownership, effectiveness, and costs all need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The use of solar power on individual buildings may not supply all the need, and can create difficulties with connection to the power grid.

Future advances in solar power promise power-generating roofing materials and building ‘skins’, however, these technologies are not currently available and their unintended impacts have not been thoroughly evaluated. A question exists in my mind as to whether the questions can be answered and the necessary technological changes in solar energy can be made in time to allow a significant replacement of fossil fuel use by an increase in solar power.

Weather has a significant impact on solar power production, and the anticipated climate changes could have an impact on the utility of solar panels in some areas. And if we think that weather is unpredictable and disruptive now, it is expected to be even more erratic and catastrophic as climate changes are felt. Drought, floods and cataclysmic winds are all expected to worsen and become more common. Drier summers, wetter winters, bigger tornadoes and more hurricanes. Can war, famine and pestilence be far behind?

As the old rancher might say, “Yes sir; that was one helluva storm!”

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