I live in Denver, Colorado, and for the past few days, we’ve had nothing but rain. Three months of rain in 48 hours, to be exact. The surge of water has caused rivers and streams to overflow their banks, drowning Boulder, Loveland, Longmont, Estes Park and many other towns along the Front Range under several feet of rushing water.
Conditions were so bad, the National Weather Service felt compelled to use the words “biblical rainfall amounts” to communicate the risk to local residents.
Any other time, extra precipitation is cause for rejoicing in Colorado. Ongoing drought has facilitated massive wildfires across the state for two years running. We’ll take all the wet we can get, although as the past few days have shown, we’d prefer it doesn’t all fall at once.
Shipping containers washed downstream in Loveland, Colorado. Image © Ryan Schlaefer
As I write this, the rain has slowed, even stopped in some areas (although they say more is on the way). Soon, evacuated residents will be able to return to their neighborhoods to pick up the pieces. Later, the flood waters will recede, rivers returning to their regular boundaries. Life will return to normal, but what most people won’t realize is that “business as usual” is the reason this catastrophe occurred in the first place.
Yes, heavy rainfall can always cause flash flooding, but according to local meteorologists, what happened in Colorado was made worse by climate change. How? To find the connection, we have to look back at the opposite of wet — the very, very dry weather that’s become all too common in the Centennial State.
“[O]ne factor has made the flooding considerably worse: the wildfires that have stricken the forests in the region in the past few years,” Kari Bowen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Boulder, told NBC. When almost all of the trees and vegetation in an area are wiped out by fire, the planet’s normal tools for fighting erosion are erased as well.
Okay, so wildfires set the stage for devastating floods, but what’s behind the fires?
“Huge, explosive fires are becoming commonplace, say many experts, because climate change is setting the stage — bringing higher temperatures, widespread drought, earlier snowmelt and spring vegetation growth, and expanded insect and disease infestations,” reported Climate Progress just last month.
What’s causing such persistent drought, which creates the perfect conditions for out of control fires?
You and me. Our cars, houses, companies, food choices and travel plans have resulted in the highest atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide in recorded human history. The fact that we’re content to destroy entire ecosystems–on the sides of mountains and teetering on the edge of coastlines–just so we can build our “dream homes.” We’re well over the tipping point that climate scientists warn us to avoid. Unsurprisingly, this is altering the planet’s normally efficient systems in negative ways.
In 2012, a 594-page report prepared by scientists from 62 countries concluded that global warming over the past half-century has indeed led to “changes in climate extremes,” such as heat waves, record high temperatures and, in many regions, heavy precipitation.
“Extreme rainfall events have become more frequent across the U.S. during the past several decades in part due to manmade global warming,” reports Climate Central. “Increasing air and ocean temperatures mean that the air is generally carrying more water vapor than it used to, and this moisture can be tapped by storm systems to yield rain or snow extremes. Trends in extreme precipitation events vary by region, though, and in general the biggest increases have taken place in the Midwest and Northeast.
That’s bad news, but this is worse: last month researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, found that extreme weather events prompted by too much C02 also result in the release of more CO2. In the study led by Markus Reichstein, “researchers found ecosystems absorb 11 billion tonnes less CO2 every year because of extreme weather events – equivalent to a third of the total global CO2 emissions each year.” Essentially, our addition to fossil fuels has set in motion a dangerous reciprocal cycle of pollution and extreme weather that we can’t stop.
That’s pretty terrifying when you consider that it only took a few days of rain to bring the entire state of Colorado to its knees. What if next year, it lasts for a week?
Images used with permission, © Ryan Schlaefer.