A Montezuma quail spotted at Raven’s Nest Sanctuary. This species is one of many that may be threatened by climate change. Photo by Vince Pinto

Arizona is a state renowned for its searing temperatures, particularly in June’s oven-like prelude to monsoon season as well as during our summer rainy season’s humid swelter. During these times Tucson and Phoenix regularly witness temperatures in the 100s. In Patagonia and other areas above 4,000 feet, the 90s generally prevail. This summer, however, has been a genuine game changer with perhaps a permanently moved goalpost when it comes to our climate. In June and through mid-July, daytime highs in and near Patagonia rarely strayed from the 100s, an unprecedented and record-setting blister of heat.

Discussions of such heat waves often focus on humans. What about our native Sky Islands’ flora and fauna? How might they fare in such soaring temperatures and what could climate change have in store for our neck of the woods if such occurrences become increasingly commonplace?

Down in our deserts such climactic fare seems simply par for the course. Deserts are scorching furnaces after all, right? Not so fast. To a host of plants and wildlife already under great duress, this new level of heat could well translate to the death of more individuals in any one species. Take giant saguaros, for example. This icon of the Sonoran Desert seems the perfect candidate to artfully navigate the vagaries of climate change and its attendant heat waves. But cacti can get metabolically stressed by such feverish temperatures. Picture a dry winter with little precipitation followed by the heatwave of this summer and a dud of monsoon season. Now these towering, spiny trees might well get on the wrong side of things with their precious water balance. Further, reproduction via flowers and fruit will be minimized in such perilous times. Multiply this effect over many decades and it’s a slippery slide into the inferno of climate change.

At the other end of Sky Islands’ hydrological spectrum are our vanishingly rare cienegas – marshy and/or swampy areas housing sometimes equally sparse species within their damp confines. Turning to other plants, consider velvet ash, fremont cottonwood, and yerba mansa. These three species are common to abundant in our very own Sonoita Creek cienega. As heat waves creep into our collective lives the water levels in the cienega could well slip under a critical level, drying out soils too much to support plants adapted to sopping conditions. As these and other moisture-loving flora go, so too might many of the creatures that call this locally improbable habitat home.

In our grassy mesquite and oak woodlands the Montezuma quail could be a sacrificial species slain on the altar of human avarice and excess that has led to our planet’s profound climate change. Highly reliant upon abundant monsoon moisture, these smart-looking quail can easily experience diminishing numbers in a succession of heat waves, coupled with drought-driven wildfires that result in an increasingly parched and threadbare habitat. With literally no place to hide in terms of vegetative cover and with less to eat, these secretive gallinceaous birds may shrink even further into obscurity than they already appear to be.

Three distinct scenarios and three hypothetical paths to the near future, courtesy of human-induced climate change. Now, superimpose such impacts on every single species within our Sky Islands region – currently still renowned for its biodiversity. No doubt a good number of species will find a way out of the maze of impacts inherent with global warming. The coyotes and common ravens of the world may even thrive upon the struggles of other species. But what about the more sensitive species such as elegant trogon, jaguar, twin-spotted rattlesnake, Sonoran toad, Arizona sycamore, Mount Graham red squirrel, and various talus snails, to mention but a few? They may see serious declines, with some species even becoming extirpated altogether from southeast Arizona. When the climate shifts so dramatically, such flora and fauna might not have time to evolve any meaningful adaptations to adjust to such abrupt shifts.

On top of all this, overlap the environmental impacts of industrial mining, overgrazing, depletion of aquifers due to human activity, increasing urbanization and habitat destruction, nonnative plant invasions… If our region is already at great risk of “death by a thousand cuts,” then surely climate change is the final and catastrophic beheading.

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit ravensnatureschool.org