How might climate change affect New Mexico?

Average Temperature Plot

New Mexico is a climatically diverse state, with large stretches of grasslands and deserts, mountains, valleys, and sand dunes.  Generally, the state has a dry (arid) climate, hot summers and cool winters, with only about 14 inches of precipitation a year (versus 40 to 100 inches per year in the wet state of Florida).  Although New Mexico residents are accustomed to frequent 100 degree days, still, they are concerned about the affects climate change will have across their "Land of Enchantment".

Climate models project an increase in temperature in New Mexico of between 6 and 12 degrees F over the next 100 years. With summer temperatures already frequently in the 100 degree range, a further increase in temperature could be taxing. Increased temperatures will likely increase evaporation of precious water resources within the state. Water supplies are currently stretched thin by too many users and not enough recharge to groundwater sources. The Colorado River is drying up slowly, no longer reaching the Pacific Ocean as it once did. Water rights of Native Tribes may put them at risk of not receiving enough water during drought conditions.

It is unclear from current data whether or not the average precipitation in New Mexico will increase or decrease in coming years. However it is predicted that there will be more frost-free days and more extreme heat days, leading to decreased snowpacks and earlier melting of snow. Earlier snowmelt may also mean earlier dry spells during the summer season. Oddly enough, if average precipitation does increase, it is likely that it will come in the form of more intense rain events, which may cause flash-floods and more problems with erosion. Shortages of water might limit electricity generation (often used to run air conditioners) and that, coupled with more frequent extreme heat days, have the potential to increase the risk of heat stress and death in humans and animals.

Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Other potential climate change impacts on New Mexico residents may include air stagnation combined with warmer temperatures and increased air pollution from wildfires that will lead to enhanced smog conditions, and increased prevalence of infectious diseases such as hantavirus, plague, dengue fever and arborviruses such as West Nile.

Warmer temperatures have the potential to alter natural ecosystems as well and it is predicted that deserts will begin to expand north, east, and into higher elevations. Aquatic systems may be negatively affected by decreased water resources and species extinctions of endemic species are expected in the eastern plains region of the state.

What does this mean for Bosque del Apache NWR?

Bosque del Apache owes its name – which means "woods of the Apache" - to the many cottonwood and willow bosques that once lined the Rio Grande.  With only 7 inches of precipitation a year, changes in climate will impact the native vegetation, much of which has already been lost to human development.  Salt cedar, an exotic plant introduced for erosion control, has invaded vast areas of the refuge. In order to restore native bosques that have higher value for wildlife, salt cedar is being cleared and many areas are being planted with cottonwood, black willow, shrubs, and other understory plants.


Photo: Cranes at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge; Courtesy of USFWS

Agency Technical Work Group. 2005. Potential Effects of Climate Change on New Mexico. State of New Mexico.

Union of Concerned Scientists. 2009. Backgrounder: Southwest. Based on "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States".

Data from The Weather Channel website: