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Cascabel, AZ — A Troubled Horizon for Arizona's Ranchers

June 15, 2005

Global Warming turns normal seasonal droughts into climate-warping disasters. In the mid-1990s, seasonal rains in Arizona's northern range country dried up. A dry year is tough, but in normal times, ranchers are tougher. What they didn't realize then was that the rains wouldn't return for nearly 6 years. Ranchers watched grasslands change to desert scrub, and looked on helplessly as huge tracks of land burned in mammoth summer fires. For many, the drought was simply too long and too harsh to weather; the parched land dried up profits and forced many off their historic ranches, perhaps forever.

Over the last 100 years, temperatures in Arizona have gone up nearly 4 degrees. Over the next century, they'll likely rise another 4 to 10 degrees. The desert landscape looks rugged and indestructible, but it's not. Desert ecosystems are delicate and minor changes in temperatures can forever change the landscape, destroying rangeland forever.

"We should be at the forefront of demanding action on global warming because we're at the forefront of the impacts of global warming. . . . In the West we're seeing what's happening now." Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, Director, University of Arizona Institute for the Study of Planet Earth.

In the meantime, in ranch country, the rains have temporarily returned. It will be years before the rangeland recovers from the drought, and the changing climate conditions that caused it have not disappeared. Indeed, as Arizona's temperatures continue to rise, the threat of new drought, perhaps even longer than the last, lingers, leaving battered ranchers turning a worried eye toward the sun-soaked horizon each spring.