Monday, September 16, 2013

Biblical Colorado Flooding and the Cost of Climate Change

Years of drought followed by a once in a thousand years torrential downpour have caused massive flooding in eastern Colorado. US President Barack Obama declared the area a major disaster over the weekend.

Twenty thousand homes have been destroyed or damaged and streets have been turned into rivers and streams have turned into lakes. A vast number of roads are damaged or destroyed including three major highways and dozens of bridges. At last count 30 highway bridges are destroyed and as many as 40 are damaged.

About 15,000 people have been evacuated from flooded areas in 15 counties, and around 1,500 were forced to stay in 28 emergency shelters last weekend as the rain continued to fall. At least 6 people are confirmed dead and more than one thousand people are unaccounted for. Army and National Guard troops have already saved close to 2,000 people, but the ongoing bad weather over the weekend hampered additional rescue efforts by search and rescue helicopters.

The ground has hardened after years of drought and hot weather in Colorado causing the heavy rains to accumulate on the surface rather than sink into the ground. It started raining off and on a month or more ago, but then early last week the torrential rains started to fall.

Flooding has impacted the foothills on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains from Fort Collins in northern Colorado to Canon City, about 180 miles away in southern Colorado. The hardest-hit counties are Boulder and Larimer in the north and El Paso in the south.

Some areas along Colorado's urban corridor have been flooded by up to 18 inches of rain since it started to fall last Monday. Those totals exceed average annual rainfall by more than five inches in the semi-arid region.

In one 24 hour period there was between 8 and 10 inches of rain, which is enough. The Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and came to the conclusion that this is a once in a 500- to 1000-year event. The amount of rain that fell in the state has broken records making September the wettest month ever in many areas of the state. The National Weather Service went so far as to call the rainfall “biblical.” To put this amount of rain into perspective, had this been snow, we would have had close to 15 feet. Boulder Creek is at least 2.7 meters (8.8 feet) above its usual height.

Although it will be months before the full costs of the flooding will be known, already the price tag of these floods is staggering. It will take months if not years to repair all the damage. Repairs to the roads and bridges in Boulder county alone are expected to exceed $150 million, that is 10 to 15 times the counties annual budget.

Crops like corn, hay, millet and sugar beets have been destroyed. This will be further compounded when the weather goes below zero and these agricultural lands turn to ice.

As always researchers are cautious and want to assess the data before they make the connection between this "biblical flood" and climate change. However, there is a conclusive body of research that shows that extreme precipitation events are likely to become more common as the Earth warms. Further a January 2013 draft of the National Climate Assessment report released in this January found extreme precipitation events have already become more common across the US.

Sadly, in a world ravaged by climate change East Colorado is unlikely to have to wait another 1,000 years for the next biblical flood.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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