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.”