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Traffic moves along U.S. 50 on a bridge over the shrinking Blue Mesa reservoir in this Monday September 6, 2021 aerial photo. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When Virginia Iglesias goes climbing in Eldorado Canyon or skis the Gore Range, she tries to block out all the big data she collects as a researcher for the University of Colorado’s Earth Lab climate change section. But it’s hard to ignore.

The wildfire smoke and ozone choking her climbing friends and obscuring the views of the Flatirons. The fast-evaporating snowpack. All the homes she passes that her data studies highlight as increasingly vulnerable to wildfires.

If you tried to convince yourself climate change is “not now” or is happening “somewhere else,” that may have ended for you this summer in Colorado. 

Iglesias and her colleagues used to be very careful in papers to not directly attribute their undeniable observations — more fires, bigger fires, more drought, longer drought — to current climate change. Now they just challenge themselves with a simple question: 

“Would this have happened without post-industrial CO2 emissions?” Iglesias explains. “The answer is ‘no.’ So, it’s very well established.”

The scientific consensus is that human-caused climate change has in recent decades raised average temperatures in the West about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and nearly two full degrees on maximum temperature days, according to Matthew Lachniet, a geoscience professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The days of Coloradans putting off climate change as a worry for hurricane-ravaged Louisiana or a water-challenged Middle East now seem to be over. 

Following are just a few of the ways “climate change now” made its full force known in the Rocky Mountains this year and showed its impact on everyday life. 

Record high heat changes Colorado school life, for kids and parents 

Seventeen Denver Public Schools closed or sent students home early Friday because of heat, underlining the fact that many school buildings still lack modern air conditioning despite years of bond issues and calls for renovation. 

In a note sent to parents last week, Steele Elementary’s principal warned the school would shut at noon Friday, and apologized for the late notice for those needing child care during the workday. “Weather forecasters say temperatures in Denver tomorrow and Friday will hit 97 degrees,” Principal Marti Rosenberg said. With Thursday setting a record high, she added, “the consecutive days of heat will make it challenging to keep temperatures at a reasonable level on Friday.”

Wildfire smoke and ozone have been a daily blur for long range views along the Front Range this summer, as in this view of the Denver skyline on September 14, 2021, from Rocky Mountain Arsenal. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

For those dismissing a Sept. 10 heat blast as typical for Colorado, 9News meteorologist Cory Reppenhagen put together an astonishing 2021 summer compilation: Four Colorado weather stations recorded their hottest average summer temperatures on record. Steamboat would have made it five, but was off by one-tenth of a degree. Central Park station had its second hottest summer on record. Denver’s annual heat streaks of 90-plus have doubled in length since 1970, to 12 days. 

Until about 1900, Reppenhagen’s charts show, a roughly equal number of daily high and low records would be broken in Colorado each year. The scales tipped then. So far in 2021, eight daily highs have been broken, and only one low. 

A draining Colorado River hits recreation life and the economy 

When the federal government pulled the plug on Blue Mesa Reservoir to save the Colorado River and Lake Powell downstream, the big Gunnison-area bathtub drained so far that the boats had to pack up and go home. 

Federally-managed Blue Mesa on the Gunnison River was already low from two decades of western drought when managers announced in July they would partially drain the lake, plus Flaming Gorge and Navajo Reservoir, in order to protect the hydroelectric power pool at Lake Powell. The drought had so severely dried up Powell that the massive generating dam there would stop without help from upstream.

By September, Blue Mesa’s draining pool left boats literally high and dry. The National Park Service told the marina concession to cut six weeks from its five-month season, before the floating dock hit lake bottom. 

Vega State Park, near Grand Junction, also closed its main boat ramp at the end of July, a least a month early, citing low water levels at the lake part way up the Grand Mesa. Earlier in the summer, Mesa County’s largest municipal water provider said it would take the unprecedented step of using Colorado River water directly in order to protect water levels at cleaner reservoirs it owns on the shoulders of Grand Mesa.

Blue Mesa Reservoir Gunnison drought drawdown marina boats dry megadrought Bureau of Reclamation
Big parts of Blue Mesa Reservoir have shrunken back to the original Gunnison River channel, as drought and a controlled draw from federal officials to help Lake Powell downstream have wreaked havoc on the big pool, recreation and some of the businesses — like the marina — that rely on the lake. This portion of the reservoir was photographed Sept. 6. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Cause and effect: “Because of changes in greenhouse emissions, we see more droughts in the American West,” said Iglesias, the EarthLab researcher. Researchers who used to shy away from pinning individual droughts on climate change have by now “stopped talking about it because it’s become so obvious that it’s boring,” she said.

One of the most popular trails in the West destroyed by mud slides

We’ve spent a lot of time in the West worrying about climate change shrinking our glaciers, evaporating the snowpack or lowering the lakes. But surely it can’t make the mountains themselves crumble during our lifetimes, right? 

The muddy rubble that used to be the beloved Hanging Lake trail offers a stark “think again.” The drought-driven Grizzly Creek fire at the Colorado River and up the canyons to the north in 2020 burned the vegetation that held the slopes together.

Biologists said it was just a matter of time and enough hard rainstorms in 2021 before the boulders loosened and delivered a load of climate change evidence onto the heavily-traveled Interstate 70 corridor. And the rain came — July monsoons not enough to provide long-term drought relief, but more than enough to start the mud flowing. 

A sign peeks through the debris pile near Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs on Aug. 25,. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

When U.S. Forest Service officials were finally able to scramble up toward the lake, they found the trail wiped out, bridges destroyed or swept aside, and the lake itself struggling back from a brown soup to its revered turquoise clarity. Trail builders said the reservations-only track won’t be reopened for a year, and even then, only as a temporary rock scramble while the entire route is overhauled. 

Glenwood Springs tourism officials begged travelers to bypass the I-70 blockages and Hanging Lake closure and come spend their money anyway, fearing a big hit to their economy. TripAdvisor, one of the social media sites partially blamed for Top-Tenning Hanging Lake into a tourist frenzy, still lists the lake as open and five stars. It’s neither, for a long time to come. 

The fire that started it all is part of an indisputable climate change pattern of bigger, more frequent and faster-moving western wildfires, Iglesias’ research shows. “Fires are going to get even worse. So we need to do something about climate change.” 

Morning coughing with the morning coffee brought 2021 hazards home 

If you could hang on to the orange-tainted, smoke-enhanced sunsets, the summer days of 2021 redeemed themselves a bit. But only after a full day of coughing and wheezing from distant wildfire smoke and Front Range-generated ozone, which you were not just imagining. 

Massive fires in California, Oregon and Canada — still burning, by the way — sent plumes of smoke across Colorado, with smoke forecasts becoming a staple of commercial TV weather segments. The smoke raised levels of particulate matter in Front Range skies, referred to in public monitoring as PM2.5. Doctors at National Jewish Health and other medical experts warned all summer that those with asthma or other respiratory sensitivity should wear N95 masks outdoors or stay indoors on the worst days.

Meanwhile, existing auto and oil and gas pollution that produces Front Range ozone was baked into a bigger problem by the 2021 heat wave. Ozone is likely made worse by the imported wildfire smoke as well, though researchers haven’t yet concluded how much

The result was by far the highest number of ozone action-alert days declared by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment since the EPA ratcheted down allowable ozone limits in 2016. The state issued 65 alerts over their summer reporting period, up from 43 in 2020 and well past the previous high of 52 days in 2018. 

Smoke rolls off California, Oregon and Canadian wildfires toward Colorado in a typical 2021 smoke forecast. (NOAA)

National Jewish researchers capped late summer with a new study directly attributing climbing ozone levels to higher temperatures from climate change. The study, published in Nature, also said that the impacts of higher ozone are much worse in areas of the Front Range with higher numbers of Hispanic residents and low-income households. The study concludes that the heat-caused rise in ozone has delayed the Front Range counties’ coming into compliance with EPA limits by two years. Metro planners now have to agree on policy changes that could lower pollution in order to reach EPA compliance. 

“The ozone climate penalty can be expected to grow over the next several decades,” the study says. “We found that residents of the Front Range are already affected by climate change through higher temperatures and higher ozone levels, and that the resulting ozone burden is already falling disproportionately on historically disenfranchised and frontline communities.” 

Clearing brush, limbing trees and searching for cheaper wildfire insurance 

You call it a mountain retreat with a view. They call it a “wildland urban interface.” 

Either way, the blissful foothills retreats where cabins or condos are tucked under pine trees and behind scrub oak are some of the areas of Colorado already paying the biggest price for inexorable climate change. 

Climate change-driven hazards, like wildfires, tornadoes and floods, threaten more than half the buildings in the continental U.S., according to a paper by Iglesias and colleagues published by the American Geophysical Union in June. The study of natural hazards and property records shows 57% of U.S. structures are in dangerous “hot spots,” and the Colorado foothills are one of the prime examples, Iglesias said.

“We know that climate change is increasing the risk of damage from some natural hazards,” she said.

Sylvan Fire wildfires 2021 fires Snowmass Roaring Fork Valley
A plume from the Sylvan Fire south of Eagle soars to the east as seen from Snowmass Village on the evening of June 21, 2021. The Sylvan Fire was one of a handful of worrisome blazes state firefighters were battling in an early fire season. (Michael Booth, The Colorado Sun.)

The stretching of fire season in Colorado and pushing community boundaries into forest land have contributed to the loss of thousands of homes across the state in the most recent megafires. In 2020, the East Troublesome fire burned 366 homes and the Cameron Peak blaze took 224 more; in 2012 and 2013, Waldo Canyon erased 346 homes and Black Canyon destroyed 511, said Vince Plymell, spokesman for the Colorado Division of Insurance. 

Consumers report that insurance companies are raising their hazard rates and denying coverage altogether unless they get proof that the homeowner has worked to mitigate wildfire hazards. 

Ten to 15% of homes reviewed by State Farm in the Pagosa Springs area fell into the insurer’s highest-risk wildfire category, meaning the company would not write a policy even with extensive mitigation, according to the Pew Trusts

Houses that fall into slightly less hazardous categories with insurers can try for assessment and mitigation help through a Colorado program called Wildfire Partners. If they get an approved risk assessment and carry out the prescribed mitigation, they end up with a certification that many insurance companies accept for writing hazard policies. 

“First, people need to know they live in hazardous areas,” Iglesias said. “And then, what they can do to make their homes less vulnerable. There are ways of building homes that make them more fire resistant, there’s new ways of building that are not more expensive than traditional building, but most people don’t know that those are options.” 

Colorado farmers losing land and animals to the ongoing megadrought 

Raising animals for food in Colorado in recent years has meant long nights lying awake wondering where their next drop of water will come from. 

Ranch operators like the Ute Mountain Ute tribe that rely on junior water rights for some of their business saw their water deliveries cut back by as much as 90%. In response, they sold cattle from herds and stopped growing thirsty crops like alfalfa or grass for hay, losing fodder for their own operations and the chance to make cash selling it to other farms. 

Farms that rely on groundwater or wells that tap into underground stream tributaries saw their pumps shut down altogether in some places, including the San Luis Valley. Some farmers and their water conservation districts also must figure out how to pay back past water overdraws by restoring local aquifers. 

Janie VanWinkle watches as her Charolais cows are moved to grazing lands on June 11, 2021, near Whitewater on the Western Slope. Even as early as June, the range was brittle and crunchy underfoot after two decades of drought. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Cattle records at Zandon Bray’s Montrose-area ranch are a roller coaster driven by drought. He had 800 head in 2018 when drought struck hard, and reduced the herd to 45 later that year. Hoping to stay in the business, he slowly built up again in the more generous water year of 2019, only to see drought return in 2020 and extend into 2021. 

This month, Bray said, the ranch is at 350 cattle. July rains freshened up the range, and running fewer head kept the short grass in better shape, though the ranch is still just squeaking by.

“This is the third out of the last four years that our ranch has not raised a bale of hay,” Bray said. In December, he plans to ship his cattle to Kansas, where they will eat corn stubble through the winter. In a better year, they would stay home and eat Bray Ranch-grown hay, at much lower cost.

“The last two years, we’ve had to buy every pound of feed that our cows are eating in the winter,” he said. “Twenty years ago, we had 1,100 cows on this ranch. And based on what we’ve gone through, I don’t see those numbers coming back to that point in the near future.”

Whether ranchers choose to call it climate change or a “dry spell,” Bray said, “dry is the new normal.”

More bad news, Colorado: This could be just the beginning

There are lifetime droughts, and then there are geologic-time droughts. Matthew Lachniet, at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studies the latter, and the stalactites and stalagmites tell him stories you may not be ready to hear. 

Human-kept climate records detail the past 100 to 150 years, Lachniet notes. Tree rings, an important climate and biology tool, can take scientists reliably back 1,000 years or more. Lachniet is a “paleoclimatologist,” studying the growth of drip-rocks in caves over tens of thousands of years. A stalactite dripping from a cave ceiling charts the passing of floods and droughts through water seepage, taking a thousand years to grow an inch. 

What Lachniet has seen in caves in the Southwest is evidence of a painful drought stretching from 9,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago. Four thousand years of dry winters. 

“We can see that aridity can extend for not just decades, but centuries, and potentially even millennia,” Lachniet said. And that’s the record before humankind made things worse by adding uncontrolled CO2 into the atmosphere for more than a century. 

The cave records underline the recent folly of federal water management officials helping to write Colorado River compacts that distribute water — to 40 million people in seven states — based on river flows in much wetter than average years, Lachniet added. 

“We have to plan for the possibility that flow in the Colorado River is going to be far below the 16 million acre-feet that we’re allocating, maybe as low as 12 million acre-feet, or potentially lower,” he said. 

How to keep from giving up, University of Colorado version

Yes, it can all add up to a fairly hopeless feeling. 

“Especially with my generation, it’s something that we don’t really need convincing us, it’s more we feel saddled with a huge problem and a kind of sense of hopelessness of like how can we tackle it,” said Daniela Martinez, who until last year was the Energy/Climate Green Teams student coordinator at CU in Boulder. 

The wildfire smoke in particular hit the Martinez family this summer. Daniela’s sister, a cheerleader at University of Northern Colorado, was recently diagnosed with asthma. 

But Martinez is not daunted by challenging causes. The optimism that runs in her veins is now directed by the Colorado Rockies, where she’s on the promotions team. And at CU, where she and her charges spent time talking to student renters about living a greener home life, Martinez said the teams found ways to stay positive and productive.

“A lot of people were very open to learning. I would say we focused really hard on being someone that could educate and also inspire,” she said. Student renters seemed happy to talk with fellow students about light bulbs and recycling, “instead of having city officials coming down into their homes and having these conversations,” Martinez said. 

The green teams’ main tool was a sort of push-survey at the doorstep, Martinez said. The renters, often students from out of state, were pleased when they could answer “yes,” they were indeed taking climate change steps like using LED bulbs or hang-drying laundry. 

“They’re happy to learn,” Martinez said. “Even if this is their first interaction, thinking of themselves as like, ‘Oh! I am someone who takes part in sustainable behaviors.’”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...