Was Climate Change to Blame in the 2013 Flood?


Extent of the Colorado Flood 2013

Extent of the Colorado Flood around Boulder’s Wastewater Treatment Plant

When cars drown they drop engine first into deep water. When a wall of sediment-loaded river races down a canyon at 16,000 cubic feet per second, it will not only rip apart bridges but obliterate the flow measuring devices fixed to them. When a toddler’s shoe surfaces from the wreckage, her little Velcro straps will turn red and brown with the stain of soil.

There’s no end to the lessons that follow a natural disaster.

Last September, five days of torrential rain, flooding, and mudslides ripped apart Front Range communities. The freak event showered Boulder County with nearly a year’s worth of rain in just a few days. Eight people died in the flooding, and thousands more were displaced or stranded.

Jamestown resident Tara Shoedinger remembers rushing from her imperiled home one night. She sought refuge in a friend’s house, an ad hoc command center stuffed with 20 people and five dogs—all in their pajamas. They canvased door to door for most of the night, trying to account for the some 300 residents of Jamestown.

For Shoedinger, the flood’s most important lesson was that connections between people matter the most. Still in a protracted effort to rebuild, the remaining residents of her small mountain town continue to support each other even one year later.

“There is no recovery without community,” she says.

But not all of the flood’s lessons are so clear.

One year later, people across the Front Range—and across the world—still want to know: How much can we pin the disaster on human-driven climate change?

Hold on, says Bob Henson, senior science writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “It’s really the wrong question.”

Despite our deepening knowledge of how Earth’s climate works, Henson says, scientists can seldom show climate change influenced specific events. There’s no doubt, however, that as the global climate warms, the atmosphere will suck up more moisture. That extra water can fuel nasty storm systems.

Although projections for Boulder County’s future climate are advancing, scientists aren’t yet able to see a connection between regional climate change and extreme precipitation events.

“Unlike the rest of the West, we do not see any significant trends,” says Henson. “It’s not standing out against the background variability we get year-to-year. We’re not discerning that effect.”

But that doesn’t mean climate scientists aren’t trying.

Thanks to advanced satellite imagery, meteorologists can reconstruct a play-by-play of the conditions that led up the floods.

In short, a low-pressure area in the southwest desert sucked moist warm air into Colorado. Once it hit Boulder County, this air mass was caught by what scientists call a “blocking pattern,” where the jet stream trapped an otherwise mobile mass of warm, wet air in place.

Some early research says these blocking patterns might have become more common in the last two decades, suggesting a link with human-caused climate change. However, the broader climate science community, Henson says, isn’t in agreement. “I think it’s still an immature area of science, but something to watch for.”

But for Henson, even when the climate question is more delicately posed, it still misses the point.

“If we’re really concerned about societal vulnerability to these flood events of whatever size and cause, then disregard everything I’ve said. We really need to worry about our exposure, what we put in the channels, and the floodplains.”

In other words, what matters most for local communities isn’t the precise workings of climate change; it’s a community’s vulnerability to extreme events. More floods will come, climate change or not. So will wildfires, droughts, and economic hardship. Communities with an eye on resiliency will see less damage to homes and infrastructure.

“The changes that we make, or allow to happen, between now and 2050 could overwhelm any changes in the climate system during that time,” says Henson.

That may mean confronting uncomfortable questions. Questions that aren’t masked in the murky blame pool of climate change.

Was it a good idea to build Boulder’s wastewater treatment plant, which quite nearly failed last September, smack in the middle of the floodplain? And when floods overload the region’s groundwater, will drinking water supplies be exposed to contaminants?

Andy Rumbach, a professor of planning and design at the University of Colorado Denver, says the flood highlights an already hot-button issue in the region—affordable housing.

“For a lot of folks who are displaced right now, they just can’t afford to live in the area, and that’s causing huge strain.”

Disaster recovery is a long process for housing, Rumbach says, and communities just aren’t rebuilding affordable housing when people need it. “Most people are moving on. The strain is starting to crack, and that will continue to happen.”

“A lot of folks have been hanging on because they’ve gotten assistance or a little bit of savings, but that’s running out and people are having to move,” says Rumbach. “It’s an unfortunate thing for this region.”

In a community like Boulder, where the median home price is over $500,000, successfully navigating conversations about economic diversity might make the most difference for vulnerable people. Rumbach says people placed in affordable housing—sometimes made affordable by building in a floodplain or other higher-risk areas—are often impacted most by a natural disaster.

“I don’t think we’re very well prepared for a disaster in the context of a really hot housing market,” says Rumbach. “If we can’t maintain our economic diversity within our towns because of this flood, are we really resilient?”

As for climate change, experts are doing some soul-searching of their own. Nezette Rydell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service and a major forecaster before last year’s flood, puts it plainly.

“I’m facetious, flippant, and dead serious. Yes, it can happen again. It will happen again. And will I be able to predict it next time? Will I do a better job? Will I give you eight inches of rain in that forecast instead of four? That’s kind of hard to say.”

Valley Uprising World Premiere: Q&A With Alex Honnold

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From the Stonemasters to the Stone Monkeys, Yosemite Valley has a storied history when it comes to rock climbing.

Greats like Yvon Choiunard, Royal Robbins, and Peter Croft once clung to the granite walls of the Valley, with outlaw climbers like Dan Osman carving out a special spot in history in later years.

In their latest film Valley Uprising, directors Nick Rosen and Pete Mortimer chronicle Yosemite’s rocky, countercultural history from the classical Golden Age of climbing through to the Stonemasters of the 1970s, who ignored the status quo and tested the limits of famous rock faces like El Capitan and Half Dome, to the Stone Monkeys of the late ‘00s, who worked BASE jumping into their daredevil routines.

Though he may not consider himself “countercultural,” Alex Honnold has arguably been the biggest name in the rock climbing industry since being featured on 60 Minutes three years ago. With a penchant and prowess for free-soloing (climbing without a rope) the Valley’s walls, Honnold was a dead giveaway when it came to wrangling characters for the Sender Films flick.

The Center for Environmental Journalism spoke to Honnold, who’s in town for the world premiere on Thursday, about the cultural shifts he’s witnessed in Yosemite and his own experiences among its granite cliffs.

CEJ: Since you began climbing in Yosemite, how have you seen climbing culture there change, if at all?

AH: I haven’t seen it change a ton just because it seemed like when I started climbing it was changing generations, in a way. I sort of started climbing right at the tail end of the major dirtbag scene where you’d see a bunch of dudes hanging out as if they were homeless or something—or kind of like how it is on Pearl Street here. But now there’s slightly less of that dirtbag culture.

CEJ: Do you think today’s younger climbers are aware of the Valley’s history and past legendary climbers—how aware were you when you started climbing?

AH: I was pretty aware of the history particularly because I grew up in California where you just hear all of those stories. It’s legends around the campfire type of stuff, like ‘Oh, I heard somebody once did such and such,’ and you’re like ‘Wow, so cool.’ Especially around California, the Stonemasters were such a big influence in Yosemite, but then also in places like Joshua Tree where they were just a big part of climbing.

CEJ: So co-director Nick Rosen said the film is meant to be a history of counterculture climbing in the Valley as opposed to just a general history. How do you think you fit into that? They defined it as a ‘Stone Monkey,’ but I’m not sure if you would necessarily call yourself that.

AH: No, I definitely don’t really call myself countercultural. I mean I suppose in some ways I am just because I’m not obviously not doing a normal job and everything. But I never really considered myself super counterculture; I’ve always prided myself on playing by the rules and working within the confines of the Park Service. I just don’t think that has any bearing on how you climb. I think you can be legit and still get the same amount of climbing in. I don’t see any reason to cause trouble.

CEJ: That clash with the park authority in the 1970s and ’80s seems like one of the main aspects of the film. Does any of that still prevail?

AH: I’m sure there’s still a bit of that. There’s still a fundamental tension between climbers and rangers just because the rules are pretty prohibitive to climbing in terms of state limits and where you can camp. If you’re planning on being a serious climber in they Valley, it is difficult to follow all of those rules. There’s still definitely tension there. I just don’t think it’s the open revolt of the ’70s.

CEJ: You had mentioned at the North Face Speaker Series in Boulder a few weeks ago that a lot of the rangers are now climbing too, so you’ll see them up on the walls.

AH: Yeah totally. I think there’s a lot more overlap now and more understanding between sides. And I do think society has changed a little bit. People aren’t rocking the hallucinogens quite as hard, and the free love and recreational drug use. I mean it’s not the ‘70s anymore.

CEJ: It seems like over the past couple decades climbing has gone from that kind of communal culture to a bit more of an independent pastime. How prevalent are these climbing communes in the park still? When you go out climbing—I know that you have your van—but are you hanging around in these little pop-up cities?

AH: I go back to the van. I’m sort of on the opposite end of that now. There’s still a bit of the climbing commune—Camp 4 is still sort of the hub of climbing. And the El Cap ridge and El Cap meadow is the place where a lot of climbers hang out. But i sort of specifically don’t do that anymore, just because I prefer privacy or whatever. It just gets a little crazy in the group stuff. But if I needed to find a partner that’s where I would go look.


CEJ: So have you seen a cut of the film by now?

AH: I actually haven’t seen the whole final thing. I’ve just seen all the pieces of it over time. I have a very good sense of what’s in it, but I’m psyched to see it as much as anybody.

CEJ: Was there anything that stood out that was new that you hadn’t seen before?

AH: I haven’t seen their treatment of the Golden Age stuff in like a year, but I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed. The Golden Age was maybe the coolest part to me because it was the story that I knew the least about. I think they did the best job of bringing it to life because it’s hard to make footage from the ’50s and ’60s look really exciting. But they did such a good job of combining photos and making things move with animation, getting interviews with the guys that are still alive, etc. It’s a really rich story for me.

CEJ: You’ve said that Yosemite has the best walls in the world, but you’ve also been doing some more international stuff lately. Do you foresee your trips back to Yosemite decreasing in the future?

AH: Not really. That’s the thing: Every time I come back to Yosemite I’m just like ‘Woah, this is awesome.’ Any time I look at El Cap it’s the best piece of rock in the world. The more I travel, the more I’m like ‘Wow, Yosemite is really awesome.’ A lot of my climbing partners make fun because everywhere I’ve been I see some cool new wall and I’m like ‘Oh yeah, that’s really cool, but it’s not quite Yosemite.’ It’s just funny that I grew up in Yosemite so I almost didn’t appreciate it until traveling more.

Valley Uprising premieres at Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium on Thursday, September 11 with a second screening on Friday, September 12. Tickets are available here

Banff Mountain Film Fest gives Boulder an adrenaline rush

Where else in Boulder can you watch dozens of skiers hit the slopes in the buff? Actually, don’t answer that. We are talking about Boulder after all.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 3.41.34 PMThe Banff Mountain Film Festival touched down in the city Tuesday and Wednesday night as part of the festival’s world tour, closing out with Vahalla, a three-minute compilation of nude skiers and snowboarders.

Roughly 850 people packed the Boulder Theater for a chance to witness some extreme — emphasis on extreme — sports captured on film. From blind whitewater kayaking, to ski jumping, to long distance paddleboarding, the tour was like an adrenaline rush for the eyes.

Documentaries by Colorado filmmakers were aired alongside standouts from the festival, which included Ready to Fly, winner of Best Feature Length Mountain Film, and North of the Sun, winner of the Grand Prize.

Both Allison Otto and Cedar Wright were in house to showcase their films and answer questions from the audience.

Otto’s Keeper of the Mountains tells the story of Elizabeth Hawley, a 90-year-old record-keeper who has been tracking Himalayan expeditions since the 1960s.

The biggest challenge Otto faced while filming Hawley in Kathmandu? Keeping up. With 9 a.m. start times and four to five climber consultations a day, Otto explained Hawley didn’t leave a lot of free time for interviews.

Cedar Wright’s journey in Sufferfest, however, could only be described as “legitimately heinous.”

In the film, climbing superstars and novice cyclists Wright and Alex Honnold attempt to link all of California’s 14ers by bicycle. The result? A 22-day tour de pain.

“I’m kind of getting a little traumatized right now,” an exhausted Wright declares in the film.

Despite the blistering thighs and swollen ankles, the pair’s sense of humor throughout the journey made the film an audience favorite.

Organized and hosted by The Access Fund, 2014 marked the second time the tour stopped in Boulder. The tour will be showing again in Denver tonight and tomorrow evening with some variation in the line-up.

The Definitive Ranking of the Top Five Films of BMFF

1. Keeper of the Mountains

More of a character study than anything else, Hawley proved a worthy subject with her innocent sense of humor and dedication to her craft. Her prim denial of an affair with Sir Edmund Hillary didn’t hurt either.

2. Sufferfest

This 18-minute video diary captured a lot of pain, and a lot of excitement. But, as Wright says, you wouldn’t have joy without suffering.

3. North of the Sun

Ever wondered what an Arctic version of Castaway would look like? Look no further than Inge Wegge’s North of the Sun, which documents two Norwegian youths as they spend the winter sleeping, and surfing, on a frozen beach.

4. The Questions We Ask

This short film follows Canadian Bruce Kirkby as he crosses the Pacific from Vancouver to Victoria on a stand-up paddleboard. Why not take the ferry? Watch the film and find out for yourself.


A visual poem filled with stunning imagery and natural beauty, I AM RED follows the life, and death, of the Colorado River, the United States’ most endangered river.

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