Taoseos awoke on Dec. 15 to a violent windstorm that caused damage to many buildings, tore the roofs off homes, overturned cars and trucks, and led directly into a county-wide emergency declaration.
The sustained winds of that morning reached 90 miles an hour across Taos County. A record breaking 103 miles an hour was recorded at Kachina Peak in Taos Ski Valley. This is where some of the most dramatic wind damage occurred. The root balls of hundreds of acres of mature spruce and fir trees were crushed to the ground. Others were split in half. In some areas, more than 90 percent of the trees had been blasted down and thrown into piles resembling matchsticks.
The most severe damage was done to the areas above Twining Road, near the Bavarian Restaurant, and the Phoenix, Lift 4. Also, both sides of the valley, up the Williams Lake trail that leads into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area, were affected by the windstorm. In many cases, the entire forest was destroyed by the windstorm.
New Mexico’s forests are often subject to powerful storms with strong winds. However, the December storm stood out because of its absurd intensity, according to some climatologists.
Grant Tosterud, chief meteorologist for KRQE in Albuquerque points to an increase of intensity and severity over the past few years. Tosterud says that climate change has caused jet stream winds to strengthen, particularly during winter months. We see more extreme temperature differences between poles and equator which creates a faster flowing jetstream.
Tosterud says that these wind events are also affected by the geography of Northern New Mexico. The jet stream travels across the state and the peaks of the mountain increase the turbulence at the upper-level flow. The wind blows down the slopes into the valleys when it hits the mountain peaks.
According to Laura McCarthy, New Mexico State Forester, forest replacement events in Spruce Fir ecosystems are not common, even though it is rare for TSV to cause such extensive damage. These events reduce the risk of wildfire by breaking up the forest’s continuity. It gives fuel types more variety. Aspen trees will likely grow in the midst of the downed conifers. Additionally, an aspen forest is less flammable.
Dr. John Formby, forest health specialist/entomologist, also at New Mexico Forestry, points out that large tree blow downs like the one at TSV could increase the likelihood of bark beetle activity. He believes that there could be an increase in beetle activity near the blow down’s periphery this summer. The beetle activity could spread into intact forests over the next few years.
Formby says that although the blowdown is unlikely, fire danger should not be underestimated. These forests are humid. Historical fire scar data shows that these spruce and fir forests burn only about once every four hundred years. But this will increase the hazard.
The tree felling also has an impact on wildlife in the area. Brian Long, a local wildlife expert, says that this will have a major effect on Pacific martens. This resulted in the loss of nearly all prime marten habitat below. [Wheeler Peak]The Rio Hondo watershed’s upper Rio Hondo watershed is the Wilderness boundary.
The Taos Ski Valley is the area with the highest concentration of Pacific marten in New Mexico, located in the Sangre de Cristo region.
Long states that the blowdown will cause the destruction of the red squirrel population, which is an important prey species for martens. He states that the recent and ongoing expansion in recreational development, such as the rerouting William’s Lake trail to the west of the valley, is further fragmenting marten habitat.
Wildlife biologist Jon Klingel agrees. Klingel reports that there has been a lot of mastication on the private lands there in recent years for subdivision development. There has been extensive glading on prime marten habitat on Forest Service lands that are subject to permit to TSV.
Glading refers to the mechanical cleaning of the forest in order to facilitate skiing, or to thin it to reduce fire danger.
The combination of climate change and human destruction of wildlife habitat makes it difficult for species like the marten to continue to exist in New Mexico, according Klingel & Long.
According to experts in forestry, climate change-driven winds are not the only reason for the massive destruction of Taos Ski Valley’s forests. Recent development, road building, expansion, and forest glading all contributed greatly to the severity and could make the next one worse.
Formby of New Mexico Forestry says that intact, contiguous forest protects itself against wind. If you start to cut down a forest, like at Taos Ski Valley you increase the chance of trees being damaged by wind events.
Klingel, biologist, says that you can expect to make a lot of money if you thin a forest. That’s not to mention the destruction and loss of forest ecosystems.
This reporter had made several hikes into the Wilderness areas adjacent to Columbine-Hondo. However, the windstorm’s effect was much less severe inside these Wilderness areas. Individual trees were damaged by the windstorm, but the protected forests kept them intact.
There are many options [to deal with the trees]McCarthy, the New Mexico state forester, said that land ownership will limit and determine how trees are managed. Private landowners who own homes may find it more practical to remove trees for safety reasons.
We will begin flying over these areas regularly starting in June 2022 to monitor for bark beetle infestations, according to New Mexico Forestrys Formby. This monitoring will continue for many years.
Melissa Savage (retired professor of Forest Ecology at University of California-Los Angeles) agrees. She is also a frequent visitor to the area. She claims that the forest will take its own course if left alone.
She recommends that you keep all the downed tree in place. Nothing will encourage regeneration more. The removal of downed trees will cause soil disturbance that can be very detrimental to regeneration and the entire site. Savage says that the downed trees will create a protected, moist habitat for forest regeneration.
Blowdowns can be a natural and frequent disturbance in this kind of forest. Many species are resilient to natural disturbances, and some will benefit.
Garrett Vene Klassen, Northern Conservation director at the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, said that the December wind event should be a wake-up call for Taos and other communities along the Rocky Mountain chain. The wind is a warning sign of what’s to come. He states that severe wind events, reduced snowpack, prolonged droughts, wildfires, and other extreme weather conditions are all likely to continue. Taos County should prepare a long-term plan that addresses these issues and takes proactive steps to reduce extreme weather events.
According to KRQE meteorologist Tosterud, dangerous wind storms will increase in frequency over the next few years.
As a result of the warming climate, we can expect to see more extreme winds events in the future.
Taos Pueblo declined comment to this article.