‘Doc’ Holliday learned too late about Kansas air


December 12, 2011 - 12:00 AM

“Doc” Holliday, so the story goes, went to Dodge City to have clean air to breathe in the hope that his TB could go away.
That might have been a mistake. Then, as now, the air over western Kansas was not reliably clean and clear. Dust stirred up by buffalo, cattle roundups, all-terrain vehicles, jeeps and — pick your favorite dust-making agent — always has been carried by the unceasing western Kansas winds into every dentist office, playground, golf course and boudoir in the region and always will be.
“Doc” learned too late that the pristine skies of the Kansas west were a myth.
And it’s likely to get worse.
Researchers say the dust content of the air is rising. They explain that the vast high-desert region called the Colorado Plateau, which stretches through four states and is home to national parks such as the Grand Canyon and Arches, is producing more dust as the average temperature rises and the length of droughts increases.
As a consequence, the incidence of asthma in the region is increasing and snow is melting faster in the Rockies and other mountain ranges.
The relationship between snow melt rates and dust is direct. Dust is black or dark gray. Dust on snow holds the heat of the sun while “undusted” snow reflects heat. The more dust, the sooner the snow melts in the spring.
This year’s heavy snow and early melt produced ruinous floods — and scientists warn the pattern could be repeated with increasing frequency with devastating effects downstream.
Statistics show that winter dust storms in the Rocky Mountains have been increasing in number due to climate change. The impact on human health and on the economies of the western states has yet to be measured. Asthma rates have increased, but not dramatically. Early snow melts did enormous flood damage this spring and early summer. Early dissipation of the snow pack also caused water shortages when the rains stopped and dog days of summer burned crops to a crisp and filled the air with dust again. But all that could be dealt with and dismissed.
If the present course of human response continues, people will continue to talk about the weather and do little to change things. It isn’t getting hotter and dustier fast enough to mobilize the troops.
The most likely long-term effect will be a gradual migration. Families with asthma-stricken children will, as “Doc” Holliday did, move, seeking a less hostile climate. Farmers facing new dust storms will head east. Cities in the path of blowing dust will suffer losses of population and job-creating industries. It won’t happen fast. There will be time to accommodate.
But the change will become more and more obvious and the impact will grow in severity until, by golly, the urge to regain what used to be will prod the most doubtful of the doubting Thomases into action and even born-again Republicans will turn Green by revelation.
Not to worry: you’ll by pushing up daisies by then — and they’ll probably wilt before they have a chance to bloom.

— Emerson Lynn, jr.

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