The rising temperatures brought on by human-driven atmospheric warming are bringing big changes to agricultural life in the Southwest, research indicates.

“Increased temperatures from human-caused climate change are having persistent and damaging impacts on vegetation productivity, with significant implications for ranchers and other land users in the region,” write researchers in a recent paper.

The American Southwest has always been a dry place—cue the romantic visions of hot, rugged, sun-bleached, seemingly infinite landscapes and star-filled night skies. And yet, the plants, animals, and people of the Four Corners region (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona) have managed to adapt to and even flourish in the land of low rainfall and high temperatures. Long before the arrival of Spanish settlers to the region in the 1500s, Indigenous Puebloan communities practiced agriculture that is uniquely suited to and thus thrived in this dry environment. When the Spanish introduced cattle and other livestock, available forage was found suitable and abundant enough for grazing, leading to a dominance of ranching in the region.

“There are climate extremes that are tied to too much rainfall or too little rainfall,” says University of California, Santa Barbara climate scientist Chris Funk, coauthor of the research article in Earth’s Future. “What this work has really focused on is a different and equally dangerous type of climate change that is associated with the desiccation of plants by extreme temperatures.”

On top of a two-decade ongoing megadrought, the researchers found that rising average air temperatures are extending conditions that increase evaporation from leaves, exacerbating the impact of declining precipitation. The result? A decrease in vegetation to support life on the range.

The ability of air to hold water (as vapor) is central to their findings, according to Funk, who leads the university’s Climate Hazards Center.

“For every degree Celsius of warming, the amount of water vapor the air can hold goes up by about 7% because the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the air are bouncing around more,” he said. “So there’s more space in between them and that can hold more water.” Ironically, he adds, that increased capacity can lead to more extreme floods when the saturation tipping point is reached because there’s more water in the atmosphere to rain out.

Read the full article about climate change agriculture by Sonia Fernandez at Futurity.