The U.S. Southwest is drying up and burning down, with a historic drought gripping the region and spurring frequent, intense wildfires. The drought has grown especially severe in Texas, the New York Times reports, where residents are fighting over water supplies amid the worst October-to-May dry spell in state history. "This is scary," says one marina owner of the rapidly shrinking Lake Travis, near Austin. Meanwhile, Arizona has become ground zero for a rash of wildfires that are burning in several states, the AP reports. "This is horrible," says one Arizona woman who has fled fires twice in a week. "This is a nightmare."
Texas is no stranger to droughts, of course, but this one has been unusually brutal. Dragging on for months, it has shrunk Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan — two key water sources for major cities, farms and power plants — by 28 percent from their combined long-term average. It has also worsened long-simmering disputes over water rights, pitting cities like Austin, which depends on water from Lake Travis, against rice farmers near the Gulf, who also need lots of water for irrigation. Lakes Travis and Buchanan were created decades ago by damming the Colorado River, the Times explains, but the regional population has since exploded faster than the water supply could keep up — especially during a drought. And not only does that cause problems for big cities and farms, but it's also bad news for wildlife. "If we don't get a break in the drought between now and November, I'm predicting dire consequences for the oysters," says Sammy Ray, a marine biologist at Texas A&M University.
Wildfires have also plagued Texas for months, but they're wreaking the most havoc lately in Arizona. The nearly month-long Wallow Fire is now 51 percent contained, the AP reports, but has already consumed more than 500,000 acres, making it the largest fire in state history. It recently spread into New Mexico, forcing about 200 people from their homes in Luma, while another huge inferno roars near the Mexican border in southern Arizona. The Monument Fire has forced about 10,000 people from their homes and is just 27 percent contained, although forecasters are hoping light winds early this week will give firefighters a much-needed advantage. Winds are expected to peak at 10 mph today. "It that prediction holds, it will be a big benefit for firefighters," one local resident tells the AP.
As the Southwest burns, the Northern Plains and Midwest continue to suffer from the opposite problem: way too much water, all at once. The swollen and rising Missouri River broke through several levees in northern Missouri over the weekend, the AP reports, threatening to unleash devastating floodwaters into nearby towns and farms.
One levee in Holt County, Mo., failed Saturday night, spilling water into a state park and recreational area in Big Lake, a small town about 78 miles north of Kansas City. The water has flooded farmland as well as homes and cabins, the AP reports, temporarily lowering the Missouri by almost 1 foot before the river began rising again Sunday afternoon. Jud Kneuvean, chief of emergency management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City, tells the AP the problem is likely due to recent rains combined with a surge of water from Hamburg, Iowa, after trapped floodwaters were released back into the river. "I looked at it mid-evening and told one of my co-workers, 'We are going to have levees start popping,'" Kneuvean says of Saturday night. "Within about an hour we were getting the calls on them." Big Lake is now seeking permission to follow Hamburg's example, hoping to cut a relief hole in its damaged levee to let some water flow back into the river.
With another 3 to 5 inches of rain expected by Wednesday, the Army Corps is now stepping up its flood-control efforts, the Wall Street Journal reports, increasing its already-record water releases from two reservoirs. The increases are forecast to raise river levels by nearly 1 foot in parts of South Dakota, a Corps spokeswoman tells the WSJ, although temporary levees should be able to hold the extra water. "Moving water out of the reservoirs is essential to balance the remaining flood storage in the reservoirs," says Brig. Gen. John McMahon. The releases are expected to continue through mid-August, the WSJ reports.
An army of armadillos is spreading north across North America, the Daily Climate reports, moving into Appalachia and other areas few biologists ever expected to find them. Joined by a migration of mice and other mammals, the mobilization is thought to be a symptom of changing climates in the U.S. The influx of armadillos could have some benefits, such as fire-ant control, but it could also threaten local quail populations, scientists say, and possibly even help spread leprosy.
While climate change is considered a leading suspect, there is no single reason why armadillos are expanding their range, the Daily Climate reports. They've been moving north since they arrived in Texas in the 1880s and Florida in the 1920s, explains Colleen McDonough, a biologist at Georgia's Valdosta State University. They're not alone, either — white-footed mice and flying squirrels have recently moved 140 miles north into Michigan, while coyotes have spent decades spreading east across the continent. Some of this likely isn't climate-related; coyotes, for example, are thought to be merely filling an ecological void vacated by wolves. But other migrations, like those of the mice and flying squirrels into Michigan, offer an "unusually clear example of change that is likely to be the result of climatic warming," says University of Michigan biologist Philip Myers. And with heat-loving armadillos now turning up as far north as Illinois and Indiana, the opportunistic animals are inhabiting places that are "totally unexpected," McDonough says, thanks in part to unusually warm winters.
While armadillos are known to be carriers of leprosy
, potentially spreading the disease to humans, it's unclear what ecological effect they'll have in their new homes. They can help by eating invasive fire ants, McDonough points out, but they're also a nest predator, and their egg-robbing habits could add pressure to quail populations already taxed by opossums, raccoons and snakes. Myers suspects southern species are starting to replace northern ones, not just intermingle with them, but he adds that there's little anyone can do but "sit back and measure the change as it happens, whether we like it or not."
Heavy snowfall in the Rocky Mountains last winter may be fueling disastrous floods along the Missouri River this spring, but that's not the only long-term risk from such intense snow seasons, ScienceDaily reports. According to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, heavy and prolonged snowfall can trigger growths spurts in toxic fungi, potentially killing off plants and disrupting ecological balances.
The study's authors examined areas in the Arctic that received above-average snow for several years in a row, finding that accumulated snow damage to widespread plant species created gaps for fungi to take over. Not only is that bad news for the overthrown plants, but also for insects, voles, lemmings and their predators, since they could all suffer from an off-kilter food web. But the researchers say they didn't even expect to see snow cause such dramatic change in the Arctic's normal plant regimes. "We were surprised to find that this extremely hardy tundra vegetation was killed off by fungal attack," says study co-author Robert Baxter of the U.K.'s Durham University. "In the first few years, as expected, the insulating effect of the snow helped the vegetation to grow, but after six years a tipping point was reached where the fungus spread with great speed and destroyed the plants."
This discovery has important implications for climate change in the Arctic, the researchers say, since it shows how even something that normally benefits tundra plants, like deep snow, can turn against them when it grows beyond normal levels. "We discovered some surprising interactions between plants and other organisms in an area that is very important for the world's climate," says Lars Ericson of Sweden's Umea University. "The results will enable us to have a better understanding of longer term climate change effects and extreme weather events, locally and regionally."
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Photo (roadblock near Arizona's Wallow Fire): ZUMA Press
Photo (Missouri River flooding in Hamburg, Iowa): ZUMA Press
Photo (armadillo): U.S. National Biological Information Infrastructure
Photo (arctic snow): U.S. National Park Service