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A number of years ago I camped in the Stephen Foster State Park on the western edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. In the morning, after the raccoons had raided the garbage that careless campers had left, I drove my Rambler station wagon to a privately owned park on the west side of the swamp and took their boat ride into the interior.  I photographed an alligator near the boardwalk and returning to my car I circumnavigated the swamp through the Georgia city of Waycross, stopping in Folkston because of a very ominous thunderstorm to the south. The next day I returned to Gainesville, Florida, where I was a student at the University of Florida. A year or so later I was with Archie Carr and his students as they penetrated deep into the swamp in canoes and a small power boat.  No alligators were seen, but we did get lots of mosquitoes, especially on Billy's Island. Archie was puzzled by the lack of 'gators and to this day I don't know why we did not see them.  

Alligator Okefenokee_2

Alligator in Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia.

Finally I remember the Okefenokee in the fog, with pileated woodpeckers calling and whacking the trees as they passed through the parking lot at Stephen Foster. The drought, at least for a while, changed all that. In April of 2011 a lightening-caused fire raged out of control.  It was not completely contained until 300,000 acres of the 417,000 in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was burned and about a year had passed (April, 2012).  The drought had already made things difficult for the wildlife of the swamp, but the long-term environmental cost to the swamp may now be incalculable. Despite this the swamp is recovering because of fairly decent rains. However, fires in the swamp are what keeps it a swamp and a number of other Southeastern ecosystems are also fire maintained (including the longleaf pine- turkey oak association.)  The question is not whether fire is important in Southeastern ecology, but whether the drought-fire cycle will be overcome by the major changes in climate which seem to be happening.

Okefenokee Swamp

Canoeing in the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia in the 1970s.

Earlier (1998) Orange Lake in northern Florida had dried to a mud hole, but then recovered at least partially. During the same period as the Okefenokee drought a number of shallow Florida Lakes nearly dried up, including Orange Lake again and Newnan's Lake.  While I was living in Gainesville, I had several opportunities to canoe down the River Styx, which flows into Orange Lake near the town of Cross Creek: the latter well-known to readers of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings books.

River Styx II

River Styx, Alachua County, Florida, in better days.

I have no idea right now what has happened to that "river," where I used to watch long-nosed gar from the bridge, but I hardly think it will be an improvement.  The River Styx oozed life from every pore - vast hords of leeches, water boatmen, backswimmers, diving beetles, small fish, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, plus numerous frogs, alligators, moccasins, and many others filled the waters, while carrion beetles, jumping spiders, orb-weavers, mud-daubers, etc. filled the surrounding wetland.  

In the arid Southwest where I now live the drought was much less stark, compared to our usual state of dryness. However the fires which have raged in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado, among others, have been unusual to say the least.  I have never seen so many of my favorite areas burned in the 60 plus years total I have lived in the Southwest (I grew up in Arizona.) Fires burned over parts or much of the Huachuca, Chiricahua, and Organ Mountains, while the largest forest fire in the history of New Mexico burned well over 200,000 acres in the Gila National Forest. Fires were so prevalent that I was able to take a photo of one beside the freeway south of Albuquerque!  The Abrams fire in the Organ Mountains was so-called because it was apparently started by target practice rounds from Abrams tanks!

Wildfire along Interstate

Wildfire along Rio Grande south of Albuquerque.

Abrams Fire inthe Organs

The Abrams Fire in Progress, 2011.

Result of Abrams Fire in Organs

Results of the Abrams Fire in the Organ Mountains a year after the fire along Pine Tree Trail looking south.

A fire in Carlsbad Caverns National Park and vicinity burned up to the visitors center.  It is truly doubtful if this area of Chihuahuan Desert will recover within my lifetime as the normal rainfall is pretty sparse to begin with and unlike the Okefenokee the Chihuahuan Desert is not based on fire to maintain its ecosystem. These fire scars seem to be spreading, and in some cases coalescing, around the Southwest. The forest can recover, but only if we get rain!  The desert is dry by nature and to have a fire like the one at Carlsbad is very unusual. The loss in wildlife and vegetation is huge. When I visited Carlsbad Caverns with my daughter after the fire we were told by a park ranger that the Mexican free-tail bat flights are now reduced because the bats simply cannot find enough food in the burned out area around the caverns. In addition, conifers are dying in patches around the state as the drought-induced bark beetle attacks take out susceptible trees, adding to the danger of further fires.

Carlsbad fire

Results of Carlsbad Fire.

Where is all this leading? Well, this could be (as many would have it) an unusual but not unknown drought pattern.  They point to the dust bowl of the 1930s and the droughts that caused Pueblo civilizations to fall in Chaco Canyon. It is true that fires in the Southeast and Southwest have maintained some ecosystems and periodic droughts are normal. However, the very size of the drought this time is alarming as it stretches from the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic seaboard in the South. The evidence is for a man-induced accidental experiment in climate change, which may now have gone past the point of no return. If the climate change deniers have their way nothing will be done and in fact we will continue on our way until we reach Eocene-like conditions of runaway green house effect. I wish that they were right and that this is only a natural and momentary blip in the North American climate, but again it is not confined to our continent.  Witness the recent severe fires in Australia, the Canary Islands and Spain, among others.  Among the projected effects of global warming are areas of severe drought and resulting severe fires. Other areas may have lots more rain (or snow), but that is another story. The fact is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen and so has global temperature. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Humans have caused the rise in CO2 (and methane, another greenhouse gas), therefore I have to conclude that human-induced global warming is a reality. Any other conclusion is not supported by empirical evidence.  The real question now is where do we go from here?  Unfortunately I see few options left other than adaptation, if possible. We may find that if the cost of reducing CO2 is bad, the cost of a warmer world is even higher.

All photos are by me.

Internet References:

Honey Prairie Complex Fire

Drying Orange Lake affects McIntosh businesses

Abrams Fire

Carlsbad Loop Fire

Chiricahua fire

Huachuca Fire

Largest Fire in New Mexico History

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Thu Aug 30, 2012 at 03:18 PM PDT.

Also republished by Backyard Science, SciTech, J Town, Kos Georgia, Headwaters, DK GreenRoots, and Community Spotlight.

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