Climate Change Is an Existential Threat to Black Rock City

Matt Sundquist
Beyond Burning Man
Published in
10 min readMar 10, 2023

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The Fly Ranch pyrg (Pyrgulopsis bruesi) was part of Charismatic Metafauna, a 2022 Black Rock City piece by Gray Davidson and Majorelle Arts. The pyrg is now at Fly Ranch. This tiny freshwater snail lives in only one pool at Fly Ranch and is at risk because of climate change. (Photo by Xulia Suero)

TL;DR: Climate change adaptation and resilience are crucial for the survival of Black Rock City.

As a kid I worked in our family garden, for a 2,000 acre farm, and built things with my Papa. During and after college I worked in law, land stewardship, data science, philosophy, and water. In 2015 I wrote two articles with The White House for the Obama Climate Data Initiative. That project made it clear to me that climate change threatens our survival.

I first went to Black Rock City (BRC) in 2016 at age 26 and loved it. I remembered the joy I felt when I worked with my hands. I felt that the open-source approach, community, and creativity made BRC and Burning Man culture the ideal context to address climate change. I wanted to combine my Burning Man joy, climate concerns, and experiences. I was inspired to contribute and started a job at Fly Ranch (Fly) in 2017. In 2021 I developed serious concerns about Black Rock City’s future. I wrote this post to discuss issues, share my concerns, and invite comments on our adaptation memo.

Progress On Black Rock City’s 2030 Sustainability Goals

Five weeks before the 2019 Black Rock City event, Burning Man Project published The 2030 Sustainability Roadmap. The organization committed to be regenerative, be carbon negative, and sustainably manage waste by 2030. We noted in The Roadmap that this is a communal effort: “The organization is not dictating something; we are setting the vision and inviting the community to help.”

2022 was the first BRC cycle informed by the sustainability goals. The incredible progress towards these goals made by the community and participants in one planning cycle included projects like DragonWings, Paradisium, Hotel California, Solarpunks, and The Solar Library, and new teams like Renewables for Artists and the Green Theme Camp Community. More broadly, by the numbers in 2022:

🌱 590 placed theme camps worked towards the Sustainability Roadmap

☀️ 730 camps used solar power in their camps

🏕️ 263 camps are leaders who can help others be carbon negative

🚌 More than 40 mutant vehicles were electric or mostly human powered

🎨 36% of art with Honoraria grants had a focus on sustainability

💪 The Nevada Operations Solar Crew deployed 42 solar trailers across BRC

😎 The Man Pavilion was powered by solar

🌿 Based on analysis we suggested two carbon dioxide removal projects

📐 We found that Black Rock City emitted 54,241 metric tons of CO₂ in 2019

♻️ 56 two-seat Ecozoic toilets were deployed in BRC

⚡ Used 1,000 gallons of high performance renewable diesel in pilots

Source: @southernbeams

2021 Climate Change on the Ground

In 2020 and 2021 I primarily lived at Fly Ranch, Burning Man’s 3,800 acre ranch in Northern Nevada. Roughly 60 to 250 people visited Fly every week for around 30 weeks in 2021. People camped in a heatwave, managed 150 cows, stewarded the land, took nature walks and Labyrinth walks, and served as Fly Guardians. Conditions were a mix of beautiful and brutal. Climate change impacted Fly Ranch and the neighboring Hualapai Flat in 2021 in the following ways:

🌡️ Over a three-week 2021 campout temperatures often exceeded 100° F°

🥵 That summer was hotter than BRC in 2022

💔 People, electronics, and equipment broke down

😷 We had weeks of Air Quality Index of 200+ due to the 2021 wildfires

🚫 We had a 563 AQI one day, according to Purple Air. (0–50 AQI is safe.)

🔥 200+ AQI is dangerous and much worse than playa dust and wind

🏜️ The Hualapai has not flooded in years, and was ~6+ inches of loose dust

💨 The Hualapai had no crust, likely due to drought and aridification

😮‍💨 Vehicles got stuck, stakes didn’t work, severe dust made breathing hard

From my perspective the smoke and heat over summer 2021 would have created significant operational issues for the BRC event — even without the pandemic.

Our Dual Challenge: Take Action & Adapt

Nikki Caravelli, a Burner and climate resilience planner in Sacramento, sent us valuable feedback on the 2021 Sustainability Update. Subsequently, we wrote a memo with her. She spoke on the 2022 BMP sustainability call. Nikki’s message was clear: climate change is already impacting us and will continue to make conditions more challenging. See her here:

We know we need to reduce emissions and escalate sustainability efforts. But we must also take action to adapt for the health and safety of current and future generations. Recent conditions will likely seem cool and pleasant compared to what comes next. The frequency, severity, duration, and unpredictability of wildfires, smoke, heat, wind, dust, rain, snow, and drought will increase and cascade. I’m concerned that the Hualapai Flat conditions in 2021 will mirror what happens on the Black Rock City playa. I think that we will soon see multiple days in Black Rock City with extreme dust, substantial storms, 120°F+, and 200+ AQI. It is likely that for Black Rock City to continue to be tenable we’ll need to adapt to the local impacts of climate change. What is our responsibility to safeguard the event and culture into the future?

Year-round Climatic Risks in the Black Rock Desert

The Nevada Climate Initiative projects that year-round climatic shifts will continue to impact the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, and beyond. The severe dust and heat we experienced during event week in 2022–and especially during Exodus–could become commonplace. Harsh winds, dust dunes, and precipitation could complicate, delay, and severely impact pre-event builds and Playa Restoration. If we tried to move the event timing or location we’d face issues. Increasingly, in the Black Rock Desert we can expect:

🥶 November — March is freezing, wet, and is projected to get wetter

⛈ ️Year-round storms will likely become more unpredictable and extreme

❄️ Freezing temperatures could extend and decrease from March to May

🔥 June and July are dry and risky, as wildfires are worst in summer

📈 Wildfire season is increasingly starting earlier and ending later

🌋 Sierra Nevada and neighboring wildfires will be frequent and intense

😱 Expanded wildfire season means bigger fires and longer smoke periods

💦 Groundwater depletion could worsen from a pipeline or geothermal

🌊 Playa could be wet into June or July as it often was until recently

🧊 October is already cold and could have a freezing Playa Restoration

Climate Adaptation at Fly Ranch

We plan to have peak activity and gatherings at Fly in May and early June. May is often pleasant and seems to present the lowest cancellation risk from fire, smoke, and heat. We plan to make climate resilient, regenerative systems (see LAGI 2020). We will host events that could scale and create the conditions for sustainable events at Fly Ranch.

We need to identify short and long-term strategies to adapt to a changing climate. We need regional and local research on the Black Rock Desert to complement our experiences and to understand how conditions will change. We can achieve adaptability and rapid response learning at scale at Fly if we think bigger, more radically, more experimentally, and in a more decentralized manner to prepare for a messy, unpredictable future.

Photo of Lodgers. Lodgers: Serendipity in the Fly Ranch Wilderness by Zhicheng Xu and Mengqi Moon brings together composting toilets, reclaimed timber waste, traditional thatching methods using local materials, computational script-generated parametric design, and native species shelters to provide an environmental education venue, soil replenishment, sustainable waste management, and habitat enrichment for Fly Ranch. See @burningman post for more LAGI 2020 pictures.

Land Stewardship, Restorative Justice, and Decolonization

From my perspective, those least culpable in the climate crisis are those most vulnerable to its impacts — including tribal and low-income communities. At a local level, BRC participants and Burning Man Project staff (myself included) are primarily settlers, often white, and have a negative ecological impact on occupied Numu land (Northern Paiute). At a global level, settler colonialism, systemic racism, patriarchy, unchecked extractive capitalism, and the symptoms of these systems are inextricably linked to climate change and biodiversity loss (see graph in appendix ii).

In short: the social contract is broken. It seems unlikely that corporations and governments that enabled our crises can or will solve them with innovation and market-based solutions. Science, technology, and social adjustments seem insufficient as standalone solutions for climate change. A better model could prioritize land, reciprocity, interdependence, restorative justice, and decolonization.

You can learn more about how we’re considering environmental stewardship at Fly and BRC on the ‘Prototyping a Sustainable Future: LAGI 2020 Design Challenge’ LAGI call, in a post from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and in a Burning Man Journal post about a tule harvest at Fly Ranch.

An Opportunity to Accelerate Change

Black Rock City is the cultural hub for the global Burning Man community. It will serve Black Rock City and everyone in our community to concurrently work on sustainability and plan for adaptation and resilience. I think there will be three general buckets and scenarios for future years:

🟢 One: We can do Black Rock City without new strategies (e.g., pre-2019).

🟡 Two: We can do BRC if we plan ahead (e.g., 2021 without the pandemic).

🔴 Three: Even with plans we clearly can’t build our ephemeral desert city.

If we anticipate issues, plan ahead, and incorporate flexibility, we could ensure more years with Black Rock City. We could continue sustainability efforts at Fly, in Gerlach, and at Regional Events. If we fail, nothing else will really matter. There is hope. Just transition and adaptation models exist.

I feel hope because of how much we’ve done and what we could do. The Immediacy of a changing climate is a massive opportunity to accelerate change, make a global impact, and improve lives. The issues we will face at BRC mirror issues we will all face in our lives. We can learn sustainability, survival, and adaptation skills at BRC and bring those home. We could address climate change if every country, community, and organization met Burning Man Project’s three sustainability goals: be regenerative, be carbon negative, and handle waste sustainably. To advance these goals, you can share this article; support projects mentioned; learn about local, regional, and global impacts; and support research and frontline communities. I will respond to comments below, and you can reach more folks at sustainability@burningman.org.

The Hualapai Flat from the LAGI Campout (Photo by Alexander Dzurec)

Appendix i: Authors & Contributors

I wrote a one page draft of this post. Subsequent additions and edits came from experts and collaborators. I’m grateful to: Bryant Tan, Charlie Dolman, Christopher Breedlove, Chris Neary, Daniel Claussen, David Shearer, Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley, Erika Wesnousky, Katie Hazard, George Reed III, Joe Childs, Heather White, Kirsten Weisenburger, Laura Day, Leslie Moyer, Lisa Beers, Marian Goodell, Marnee Benson, Matt Morgan, Molly Vikart, Nikki Caravelli, Ryan Kushner, Sam Goldman, Stephen Chun, Wilfredo Sánchez Vega, Will Roger Peterson, and Zac Cirivello.

Appendix ii: Supporting Data

Below are four graphs that illustrate the major impacts we can expect around temperature increase, wildfires and smoke, heatwaves, and biodiversity collapse. For a more detailed analysis of temperature issues, see NASA’s GISS Surface Temperature Analysis.

CO2 Emissions and Global Warming

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report, the global surface temperature is forecast to dramatically increase in the next 30 years along with CO₂ emissions. Source: Summary for Policymakers, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on the physical science basis of climate change.

Historical and Projected Forest Fire Areas

The graph below shows historical and projected annual forest-fire area (FAA) in the west in the US. The y-axis on the left represents the thousands of square kilometers burned. The y-axis on the right represents the % of forested land burned. The black line through the middle represents the median over time. The gray bands represent a 90% confidence range. The scatter plot on the right represents the 30 year FFA for three time periods. Note the dramatic uptick projected in wildfires in the upcoming 30 years. The median acreage of forest fire acres for the next thirty years will be almost double what it has been the previous thirty years. Source: Nature, Projected increases in western US forest fire despite growing fuel constraints.

Changes in regional heatwave characteristics

The graph below shows projected changes in heatwave characteristics across 21 regions relative to 0.5 °C global warming thresholds for a) heatwave days; b) number of events; c) event duration; d) peak intensity; and e) regional mean warming. Source: Scientific Reports, Changes in regional heatwave characteristics as a function of increasing global temperature.

Principal Drivers of Biodiversity Loss

Various species are in decline due to different threats. The underlying data is based on 11.1K bird species, 6.7K amphibian species, and 5.8K mammal species. Habitat destruction and ecological overexploitation, overhunting, agriculture, pollution, and industrial development are far greater threats to biodiversity than climate change. We will not solve the problem if we focus too much on emissions and carbon dioxide removal but neglect the broader ecological impacts of extractive capitalism. Source: Conservation Letters, An inconvenient misconception: Climate change is not the principal driver of biodiversity loss.

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