Floods, Drought, and Fire 🔥

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

This was a historical cabin built in the 1930s at Meadow Park in Lyons. FEMA will help to rebuild. Photo by Sunshine Dancer Swann



We have recently seen an amazing amount of rain in Boulder County, and the flood damage has indeed been very serious in some areas, destroying homes, roads, and trails. Many places got at least 18 inches of rain in less than a week. It has been reported that this was at least a 500-year rain event, which means that we should only see this happen once every 500 years! But, many scientists who have been working on climate change warn us that we can expect a lot more extremes like this in the weather. This means that we may see heavy rains much more often, like the ones we just had. On the other hand, it also means that we may see longer periods of drought, too. So there likely will be big swings in the climate, from, lots of rain to lack of rain.


The United Nations IPCC, which stands for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is made up of scientists from many different countries, including the United States of America. Their new 5-year report says that with 95% certainty global warming is due to human activity. For example, this would include things like exhaust from our cars or furnaces and smoke from power plants that burn coal or natural gas.


The carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released becomes part of the Earth’s atmosphere. It traps reflected heat from the sun. We call this the “greenhouse effect,” which causes global warming. This has made our winters in Colorado less cold. Because of this the pine beetle has thrived, causing massive die-off of our evergreen forests in the mountains.


The opposite of too much rain is drought, which results in grass and underbrush becoming very dry and subject to fire. If lightning or a careless human starts a fire, it can burn thousands of acres of forest, especially those that have become dry and brittle from heavy beetle-kill.


In Boulder County, we have had several severe fires in the recent past, the worst one being the Four-Mile Fire that burned 169 homes.


Lightning-started fire is a normal part of natural forests, especially in places like Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming. Here there are often “dry” thunderstorms, ones that have little or no rain, which makes it much easier for fires to get started. This is called a “fire ecosystem.” In 1988, much of Yellowstone burned in the worst fires for about 100 years.


In her amazing book called The End of the Long Summer, Dianne Dumanoski points out that the climate for the last 12,000 years has been relatively stable and allowed human civilization to flourish. But our modern industrial activity and exploding numbers of humans are causing rapid change. We can’t stop climate change now, so we must adapt to it in order to survive.


The good news is that our human species, Homo sapiens, evolved in a time of great climate upheaval, so it is in our genes to have the flexibility needed to adapt to the coming extremes. Let us have faith that we have the “smarts” to do it!



Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail info@thornenature.org or call (303) 499-3647.


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