Times are a changin’ – Walking in time of weather extremes

“Changes in climate can potentially shape the environment in which we operate and the missions we are required to do.” Department of Defense Climate-Related Risk to DoD Infrastructure Initial Vulnerability Assessment Survey (SLVAS) Report, January 2018

The liberal agency that is known as the US Department of Defense conducted an extensive study of the impact that changes in the climate will have on its mission. The US military infrastructure will be (and already is) impacted, the military will deploy personnel to repair existing infrastructure, perform humanity missions, and fight conflicts. In short, billions or even trillions of additional dollars spent in the long term due to climatic caused events.

Call it climate change, cyclic weather patterns, extreme weather, or even bad juju, how the military operates in the future is being planned, discussed, and strategized. The US military is (overall) a conservative but pragmatic agency. “Blood and treasure” tends to change the equation over empty rhetoric.

On a smaller, but still impactful, scale how we recreate in the outdoors will change for similar reasons.

Consider some recent items just in the past few months:

  • And too many more to list

Peering into the Magic Eight Ball yet again, it seems that how we recreate in the outdoors will drastically change in the immediate years ahead. A theme I’ve touched upon before. But it seems this summer has made the topic ingrained even more into my mind.

This humble article can’t cover all the facets of this extensive topic. An ambitious person could easily write a Ph.D. level paper on this subject.

I am not that person.

But a few main points immediately come to mind:

  • The small long-distance hiking community will have to think long and hard about what consists of a “real” thru-hike. Perhaps a minor issue in the grand scheme, but an issue people are passionate about. And a microcosm of what is ahead. Meaning people will need flexibility in planning and defining their outdoor experience. If an area is more-or-less closed indefinitely, is a thru-hike invalidated? Is it worth road-walking an area with excessive smoke just to claim completeness of a hike? Does taking a shuttle around closed off area make your hike less somehow? Is flip-flopping to avoid excessively snowy, smokey, or closed areas and coming back later a perfectly acceptable thru-hiking strategy? I know the answer for myself (just hike, have fun, and be safe), but I know others feel much different. Changing weather patterns may change additional minds, though.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 19: Fire crews fight a wildfire from the air in Sunshine Canyon on March 19, 2017 in Boulder, Colorado. More than 1,000 homes have been evacuated west of Boulder due to the fire. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

  • Fewer dollars for maintenance, infrastructure, personnel, and equipment. The USFS budget is becoming vastly depleted by all the firefighting in recent years. The same problems plaguing the US military due to climatic issues are plaguing the USFS, too. With a fraction of the budget versus the military, of course. BLM, NPS, and state, county, and other local agencies have similar issues. Fewer dollars for non-firefighting priorities means other projects go by the wayside.

  • Outdoor plans change and people have to scramble. Very difficult to plan a hiking trip, rafting jaunt, or even a camping trip if where you are going has a good chance of being closed months from the time you make your initial plans. Not everyone has the luxury of making new flight plans, changing when and where to do a multi-week jaunt, or driving to an alternative location.

  • The local economies will take a hit. People have changed their camping plans due to the smoke and fire restrictions, never mind the closures. Naturally, even if there are no fires, heat waves cause people to recreate less and stay in the cities. And if the water levels are low, so much for rafting trips. That means fewer people using restaurants, lodging, local services, etc. A season or two *might* be able to be weathered. In the long term? Places close, a town loses a good chunk of its economic base, and the services an outdoor recreationist needs no longer exist in the semi-ghost town.

  • More tropical storms and hurricanes will cause flooding, blowdowns and other damage.  That means more volunteer hours or money to repair trails, trail closures of various lengths, damage to infrastructure on the trails such as shelters and ranger stations, etc. And, again, the areas that depend upon outdoor recreation for its economy will suffer financially.

From Appalachian Online

Downtown Boulder. Sept 2013.

Ski Rio in New Mexico. From CO Ski History.


Times are changin’. And so are the weather, the conditions, and where we hike. A wise outdoor recreationist will follow the Pentagon’s example and acknowledge the New Normal in addition to being flexible with their planning. And think of what it means to them personally in how they make plans in the backcountry.

Additional material:

Here are some further reading and viewing materials that may be of interest to some.

The novel The Water Knife put it:

“There are other books. Lots came later. You can read Fleck or Fishman or Jenkins or others online.” He nodded at the book in her hands. “But I always think people should start with this. It’s the bible when it comes to water.”
“The bible, huh?”
“Old Testament. The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

To know water is to understand The West. Start with Cadillac Desert.

As I wrote earlier:

“…a documentary of one of the worse ecological disasters in modern history. Certainly not an easy watch, but much like Cadillac Desert, all persons who love the American West should heed the lessons told. When hubris meets natural and financial disasters, a tale is told that cuts deeps. The personal accounts of the survivors of The Dust Bowl are emotionally gripping more than seven decades after the events take place. The Dust Bowl also shows the parallels for today that we are repeating with our modern hubris. Next to The Civil War, The Dust Bowl may very well be Ken Burns’ best documentary. But at a relatively short four hours, more easily watched.”

John Wesley Powell predicted much of our current status even beyond the current climate shifts:

When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug, there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all this arid region. –John Wesley Powell, 1893. Speech to International Irrigation Congress in Los Angeles

Read the classic account of what caused Powell to formulate many of the thoughts that proved to be prescient.

Despite the sensationalistic title (probably not chosen by the author), the book Climate Wars is an even-handed, informative, and entertaining (!) look at what could happen as the world warms up and experiences climatic changes. But from a geopolitical and military viewpoint. Gwynne Dyer is an award-winning author and military historian from Canada.

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2 years ago

There has recently been several rescues of hikers overcome by heat while hiking the AT in Maine. This wasn’t part of my planning for the Mahoosucs.