The four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse, writes William deBuys at TomDispatch, are heat, drought, windstorms, and fire. DeBuys, who is the author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest (Oxford, 2011) actually adds a fifth horseman—the political disorganization and social fragmentation that will make for an incoherent and divisive response to these travails. Phoenix is a sort of Ground Zero for such inter-locking vulnerabilities, but the entire American Southwest is implicated in the scary future projected by DeBuys:
. . . Phoenix’s multiple vulnerabilities, which are plenty daunting taken one by one, have the capacity to magnify one another, like compounding illnesses. In this regard, it’s a quintessentially modern city, a pyramid of complexities requiring large energy inputs to keep the whole apparatus humming. The urban disasters of our time -- New Orleans hit by Katrina, New York City swamped by Sandy -- may arise from single storms, but the damage they do is the result of a chain reaction of failures -- grids going down, levees failing, back-up systems not backing up. As you might expect, academics have come up with a name for such breakdowns: infrastructure failure interdependencies. You wouldn’t want to use it in a poem, but it does catch an emerging theme of our time.
Phoenix’s pyramid of complexities looks shakier than most because it stands squarely in the crosshairs of climate change. The area, like much of the rest of the American Southwest, is already hot and dry; it’s getting ever hotter and drier, and is increasingly battered by powerful storms. Sandy and Katrina previewed how coastal cities can expect to fare as seas rise and storms strengthen. Phoenix pulls back the curtain on the future of inland empires. . . .
[I]n Phoenix there are all too many “reasons” primed to collaborate and produce big problems, with climate change foremost among them, juicing up the heat, the drought, and the wind to ever greater extremes, like so many sluggers on steroids. Notably, each of these nemeses, in its own way, has the potential to undermine the sine qua non of modern urban life, the electrical grid, which in Phoenix merits special attention. . . .
It goes without saying that Phoenix’s desert setting is hot by nature, but we’ve made it hotter. The city is a masonry world, with asphalt and concrete everywhere. The hard, heavy materials of its buildings and roads absorb heat efficiently and give it back more slowly than the naked land. In a sense, the whole city is really a thermal battery, soaking up energy by day and releasing it at night. The result is an “urban heat island,” which, in turn, prevents the cool of the desert night from providing much relief.
Sixty years ago, when Phoenix was just embarking on its career of manic growth, nighttime lows never crept above 90°F. Today such temperatures are a commonplace, and the vigil has begun for the first night that doesn’t dip below 100°F. Studies indicate that Phoenix’s urban-heat-island effect may boost nighttime temperatures by as much as 10°F. It’s as though the city has doubled down on climate change, finding a way to magnify its most unwanted effects even before it hits the rest of us full blast. . . .
Heat . . . is a tricky adversary. It stresses everything, including electrical equipment. Transformers, when they get too hot, can fail. Likewise, thermoelectric generating stations, whether fired by coal, gas, or neutrons, become less efficient as the mercury soars. And the great hydroelectric dams of the Colorado River, including Glen Canyon, which serves greater Phoenix, won’t be able to supply the “peaking power” they do now if the reservoirs behind them are fatally shrunken by drought, as multiple studies forecast they will be. Much of this can be mitigated with upgraded equipment, smart grid technologies, and redundant systems. But then along comes the haboob.
A haboob is a dust/sand/windstorm, usually caused by the collapse of a thunderstorm cell. The plunging air hits the ground and roils outward, picking up debris across the open desert. As the Arabic name suggests, such storms are native to arid regions, but -- although Phoenix is no stranger to storm-driven dust -- the term haboob has only lately entered the local lexicon. It seems to have been imported to describe a new class of storms, spectacular in their vehemence, which bring visibility to zero and life to a standstill. They sandblast cars, close the airport, and occasionally cause the lights -- and AC -- to go out. Not to worry, say the two major utilities serving the Phoenix metroplex, Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. And the outages have indeed been brief. So far.
Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers was similarly reassuring to the people of New Orleans. And until Superstorm Sandy landed, almost no one worried about storm surges filling the subway tunnels of New York.
Every system, like every city, has its vulnerabilities. Climate change, in almost every instance, will worsen them. The beefed-up, juiced-up, greenhouse-gassed, overheated weather of the future will give us haboobs of a sort we can’t yet imagine, packed with ever greater amounts of energy. In all likelihood, the emergence of such storms as a feature of Phoenix life results from an overheating environment, abetted by the loose sand and dust of abandoned farmland (which dried up when water was diverted to the city’s growing subdivisions).
In dystopic portraits of Phoenix’s unsustainable future, water -- or rather the lack of it -- is usually painted as the agent of collapse. Indeed, the metropolitan area, a jumble of jurisdictions that includes Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Sun City, Chandler, and 15 other municipalities, long ago made full use of such local rivers as the Salt, Verde, and Gila. Next, people sank wells and mined enough groundwater to lower the water table by 400 feet. . . .
Longer term, the Colorado River poses issues that no amount of tribal water can resolve. Beset by climate change, overuse, and drought, the river and its reservoirs, according to various researchers, may decline to the point that water fails to pass Hoover Dam. In that case, the CAP [Central Arizona Project] would dry up, but so would the Colorado Aqueduct which serves greater Los Angeles and San Diego, as well as the All-American Canal, on which the factory farms of California’s Imperial and Coachella valleys depend. Irrigators and municipalities downstream in Mexico would also go dry. If nothing changes in the current order of things, it is expected that the possibility of such a debacle could loom in little more than a decade. . . .
Phoenicians who want to escape water worries, heat waves, and haboobs have traditionally sought refuge in the cool green forests of Arizona’s uplands, or at least they did until recently. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski fire consumed 469,000 acres of pine and mixed conifer on the Mogollon Rim, not far from Phoenix. It was an ecological holocaust that no one expected to see surpassed. Only nine years later, in 2011, the Wallow fire picked up the torch, so to speak, and burned across the Rim all the way to the New Mexico border and beyond, topping out at 538,000 charred acres.
Now, nobody thinks such fires are one-off flukes. Diligent modeling of forest response to rising temperatures and increased moisture stress suggests, in fact, that these two fires were harbingers of worse to come. By mid-century, according to a paper by an A-team of Southwestern forest ecologists, the “normal” stress on trees will equal that of the worst megadroughts in the region’s distant paleo-history, when most of the trees in the area simply died.
Compared to Phoenix’s other heat and water woes, the demise of Arizona’s forests may seem like a side issue, whose effects would be noticeable mainly in the siltation of reservoirs and the destabilization of the watersheds on which the city depends. But it could well prove a regional disaster. Consider, then, heat, drought, windstorms, and fire as the four horsemen of Phoenix’s Apocalypse. As it happens, though, this potential apocalypse has a fifth horseman as well.
Rebecca Solnit has written eloquently of the way a sudden catastrophe -- an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado -- can dissolve social divisions and cause a community to cohere, bringing out the best in its citizenry. Drought and heat waves are different. You don’t know that they have taken hold until you are already in them, and you never know when they will end. The unpleasantness eats away at you. It corrodes your state of mind. You have lots of time to meditate on the deficiencies of your neighbors, which loom larger the longer the crisis goes on. . . .
It is a truism that communities that do not pull together fail to surmount their challenges. Phoenix’s are as daunting as any faced by an American city in the new age of climate change, but its winner-take-all politics (out of which has come Arizona’s flagrantly repressive anti-immigration law), combined with the fragmentation of the metro-area into nearly two dozen competing jurisdictions, essentially guarantee that, when the worst of times hit, common action and shared sacrifice will remain as insubstantial as a desert mirage. . . .
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William deBuys, "Exodus from Phoenix," TomDispatch, March 14, 2013
See here for images of the haboob that descended on Phoenix in 2011.