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The Perils of a Temporary Metropolis

Nevada is basin-and-range country. Driving across the state means dipping up and down valleys and mountains, searching for antelope on the horizon while keeping one eye on the gas meter. “No services next 100 miles” is a common warning in this desert that can turn deadly in an instant. Preparing for inclement weather – scorching sun, raging winds, or torrential rain – is vital, because the desert plays no favorites.

The playa knows this. Actually, the playa was built for this. Abutting the small town of Gerlach in northwestern Nevada, and two hours away from where I grew up in Reno, the Black Rock Playa is a modern-day relic of historic Lake Lahontan, a Pleistocene-era lake that extended from northwestern Nevada into southern Oregon and northern California. 

Scaly like a tortoise shell and very flat, the playa once made up the bottom of Lake Lahontan until a warming climate 10,000 years ago dried up the lake, leaving the playa. About 51 weeks of the year, the playa sees few people, giving room to kit foxes and lizards and sometimes, if there’s been rain, fairy and tadpole shrimp. 

But one week every year, the rumble of car motors scatters these desert-adapted creatures as the world-(in)famous Burning Man festival sprawls over four square miles of the playa, creating the temporary Black Rock City, population 80,000. 

Once an anarchist haven founded on communal, anti-capitalist, leave-no-trace tenets, the festival has become a place for the uber-wealthy to play at rural desert living before returning to their city comforts. The non-wealthy show up too, of course, but at an entry price of $575 plus a $140 vehicle fee, attending the festival is no small feat. 

This year marked one of the most eventful Burning Man years yet: As attendees made their way to the playa in late August, activists blocked the road with a 28-foot trailer to protest Burning Man’s carbon footprint and to bring attention to the ongoing climate crisis. The blockade ended after protesters were arrested by the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal police department, whose lands are close to the Black Rock Playa. 

Then, over the first weekend of September, the rains came. About one inch of rain fell, turning the playa to mud as the ground became saturated with an infrequent but life-giving rainfall that allows the foxes and lizards and sometimes-shrimp to call the desert home. The extremes that define the Nevada desert – triple-digit temperatures and dramatic downpour – have made the playa into a sponge whose cracks let water seep deep into the aquifer below where it can avoid evaporation even on the hottest of days.

But for Burning Man attendees, these rains are less life-giving. To use the words of my desert-dwelling dad, “the rule of thumb when driving across the playa is if there’s no dust behind you, turn around and get the hell off.” The dust that coats attendees’ cars days after they leave Burning Man turns to clay when wet, so being on the playa even if it’s a little bit damp can easily ruin a fun trip. Add thousands of cars (and trucks and RVs) to the mix in a “city” with no permanent infrastructure and an inconvenience turns dystopian quickly.

This year’s havoc, and the national media’s attention on it, has been a long time coming. Locals have voiced concern about the festival’s effect on the environment for years, arguing the foot and vehicular traffic from temporary Black Rock City has changed the hydrology of the playa. The rushed departure of so many people this year has scientists worried about extreme erosion from the trenches people formed trying to unstick themselves from the mud. 

Burning Man has long departed from its founding principles of self-reliance and stepping lightly on the land. The yearly migration to rural Nevada and the chaos that ensues begs the question of whether it’s time for Burning Man organizers to finally listen to the playa they purportedly love. 

Not every place needs to be made a metropolis, no matter how temporary.

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One More Thing: An Eruption

Hawai‘i’s Kilauea volcano erupted for the third time this year on Sunday and of course I’m excited about it because VOLCANOES! The wonder. The amazement. The awe. I wrote an entire newsletter about my backyard volcano, Mount Saint Helens, a few months ago, which is much less active than Kilauea but when it erupts, does so at full force. 

So far, Kilauea’s most recent eruption has not threatened the towns nearest the volcano, but scientists are still monitoring it closely. 

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