It’s been over a month since rain-swollen creeks tore through roads and flooded homes in Colorado’s Front Range. While the camera crews have long since gone home, the disaster isn’t over for families who suffered property damage. Of the 20,000 single-family homes in the Boulder area, only 3,504 had flood insurance – one of the highest ratios in Colorado. Four thousand homes were damaged in Boulder alone.
Homes within the 100-year flood zone backed by federal mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance, often at subsidized rates, through the National Flood Insurance Program, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But September’s flooding swamped uninsured Colorado homes well above the 100-year floodplain – just as homes in New York and New Jersey outside the flood zone were swamped by Hurricane Sandy last year, and Vermont homes were sunk by Tropical Storm Irene the year before.
Typically, a 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. As climate change continues to push weather patterns toward extremes, though, many climatologists are finding these once-in-a-lifetime weather events to occur more frequently: A report released last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that human-induced climate change played a role in several extreme weather events of 2012. There’s been a push among climate scientists and private insurance agencies to update federal flood maps to reflect what HCN contributing editor Craig Childs calls the “new high water mark:” areas beyond historical flood zones that are now at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, different runoff patterns and more intense storms.
"Old statistics on flood risk are obsolete," Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told InsideClimate News. "Increasingly, (FEMA) should be looking ahead."
On Nov. 1, President Obama issued an executive order mandating that FEMA and other federal agencies do just that. Obama’s “climate preparedness and resilience” order builds on the administration’s Climate Action Plan released in June which, among other things, seeks to reduce carbon emissions by regulating power plants. The latest executive order requires all agencies to “modernize” their approach to climate change, and creates a task force of governors, mayors and local leaders who will examine whether money spent on infrastructure stands up to extreme weather. It also requires land and water to be managed with an eye to climate change, and may mean that more federal assistance will be directed at state and local governments that invest in resilient infrastructure.
For 15 days last year, Renee Seidler, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, sat in a truck near a highway and watched the fall migration of Wyoming’s pronghorn. It was the first time since the construction of Highway 191 that the 300-head Teton herd had an alternative to dodging cars and trucks to get from Teton National Park to the Upper Green River Basin. But that alternative was scaring the animals rather than enticing them. Instead of their customary – and hazardous – path across the highway, the animals encountered a 13-mile-long, eight-foot-tall fence blocking the way. It opened only at two overpasses and six underground tunnels. For hours each day, Seidler watched as the pronghorn paced the fence and avoided the unfamiliar passes, searching for another way across.
It looked stressful for the animals, said Seidler, who watched them bobbing their heads in a way she’d never seen before as they looked for ways through the fencing. “In humans we would call it high anxiety,” she said. But with no alternative, all the members of the herd eventually found their way across. She expected that their return migration the following spring would be easier, but to her surprise, it was the same thing all over again – head bobbing, apparent confusion and sometimes days stuck on the south side of the fence. With the seasonal changes in vegetation and snow pack, Seidler realized it must have been like encountering the fences for the first time – again. It was troubling.
So when a co-worker watching this fall’s migration called, Seidler was excited to hear him say, “You’re not going to believe this. It’s going so smoothly.” The adults that crossed last year seemed to remember the new pattern and have been crossing, since late September, without any hesitation. In the process, the pronghorn are teaching this new route to their offspring who are trotting right behind.
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As I wrote in High Country News last spring, the pumas of Southern California's Santa Monica Mountains are dying — slowly, but quite literally — for lack of genetic diversity. Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator.
That’s why it mattered so much that, last month during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on the 101 freeway at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. When I blogged about that death then, several readers took the headline, “Who do you call?” to mean “who do you call to dispose of the body?” They offered advice, and even DIY techniques involving heavy gloves and netting.
I appreciated that. But what I really meant was, “who do you call to understand the magnitude of the loss? Where was the puma coming from and where was it going? What did its DNA say about its ancestry?” Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range; every loss here hits hard. I wanted to know what this one meant.
Unfortunately, there was no one around to ask. When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they're back, we have the answers. And it turns out this death is just about as tragic as it gets for the lions of the Santa Monica Mountains.
In many Western cities, municipal water management is a job tied to the mountains. In Salt Lake City, for example, 80 percent of the city’s water supply comes from snowpack in seven Uinta and Wasatch Mountain watersheds.
Yet it’s becoming all too clear that the mountains’ water yield will decrease, come earlier in the year, or both. Cities and local water managers across the West – not just researchers looking at regional trends – are now trying to address those shifts. “We’ve observed changes in the climate in Salt Lake, and around the region, and it’s appropriate to think about how climate change is going to impact water supply,” says Tim Bardsley, a Salt Lake City-based hydrologist with the Western Water Assessment.
In the past, water resources managers could look at historical data and use that to make decisions about the future. Now that the future will surely look vastly different from the past, that approach is no longer valid.
But even as climatologists have provided climate predictions, they haven't been specific enough for many local water managers. For example, regional-scale research already portrays a warmer Intermountain West where more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, runoff will peak earlier, and streams will carry less water by late summer and fall. But because of how global climate models average data over large regions, they have painted with too broad a brush to be considered useful for the specifics of local water planning.
This is changing as finer scale climate data have become more readily available. Plus, local water managers and scientists are working in tandem to identify risks to water systems, and to create water plans that will work within a range of climate scenarios. Acknowledging the increasing demands on local leaders to deal with this global issue, and their prominence as problem-solvers (see the book “If Mayors Ruled the World”), President Obama issued an executive order last week on climate preparedness, focusing on state, city and county governments. As a nod to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s progressive sustainability agenda, he was selected for Obama’s climate adaptation task force.
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Driving through southwestern New Mexico this summer, I passed one of the area’s wolf-proof school bus stops. I’d heard about the enclosures for years and couldn’t resist pulling off Highway 180 onto State Road 32 to check one out in person. More recently, the cages have been featured in a new documentary film, “Wolves in Government Clothing.”
Walking up the gravel road, I tried to envision leaving my own seven year-old at the remote intersection. Even if I did drop her and drive off – with no homes close by, I doubt many kids hoof it there – I wouldn’t leave her in the cage.
Peering into the eight- or ten-foot high wood and wire enclosure, we found its bench smashed and the dirt floor covered with trash. To be fair, school had been out for over a month. But the flimsy, trash-filled box didn’t convince me it sheltered many schoolchildren. The first of the cages were built in 2007 by a local school district; a picture of children looking out from a cage near Reserve, N.M. appeared in newspapers at the time. Both then and now, the cages smell of a publicity stunt.
A vocal group of citizens in southwestern New Mexico have long fought the Mexican gray wolf recovery program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners – a program that hasn’t actually been a resounding success. Despite more than a decade of planning and 15 years of on-the-ground work, only 75 wolves roam the recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico. Thanks to political wrangling, local opposition, a pledge to remove or kill wolves that prey on livestock, and a highly restricted recovery area, the program remains far below its goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2006.
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It was almost a normal drive home. In the nearly 10 years I’ve lived in the Colorado Rockies, I’ve completed variations on the same 4.5-or-so-hour route dozens of times on my way down to the plains and my hometown, Boulder, Colo., without major incident: Highway 24 from Leadville to I-70; Highway 82 from Aspen to I-70; Highway 133 from Paonia, High Country News’ headquarters, to I-70.
This one, on my way back from my nephew’s first birthday party in the last days of October, had pretty much everything going for it. The weather was good, crisp and edged gold with the last aspen and cottonwood leaves. Westbound traffic on I-70 streamed along at a fast clip; winding, two-lane 133 from Carbondale into the West Elk Mountains was pleasantly snow-, rockfall- and elk-free in the deepening twilight. Crossing 8,755-foot-high McClure Pass, I yelled along to a dance tune by The Shoes to stay alert on the last dark stretch of the drive.
To the west, I could see a line of headlights approaching. It wasn’t until they were nearly upon me, coming around a long bend, that I realized one set was in my lane and approaching fast. I slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road into the grass just in time to clear the windshield-level bumper of a lifted pickup, which swerved into its own lane at the head of the pack of cars.
When I was done panic-shouting at my steering wheel, I realized that, all things considered, I’d been forced off the road in the best place possible. If it had been on the east side of the pass, I would’ve gone off a cliff. If it had been a few miles farther to the west, I would’ve hit a vertical rockface. If the shoulder had been steeper, I could have easily rolled. “I swear it’s like you live in The Road Warrior,” a friend remarked after I arrived safely home and texted him what had happened.
Indeed, there’s very little margin for error on your typical two-lane highway. You probably know this from experience if you live in the back-corners of the rural West, where even going to the grocery store can involve a windy, multi-mile, suicidal-deer-ridden drive at high speed (though admittedly probably not mohawked pursuers in dune buggies). According to a comprehensive report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, rural areas claimed a whopping 55 percent of all traffic fatalities and 54 percent of fatal crashes in 2011, despite hosting only 19 percent of the U.S. population. From 2002 to 2011, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.5 times higher in rural areas than urban.
At 5 a.m. on Oct. 30, coal miners and residents of Moffat County, Colorado, gathered at a McDonald’s in Craig for a pancake breakfast before boarding buses to Denver chartered by Peabody Coal. They were headed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s listening tour, in which the agency travels around the country seeking input on its new regulations for existing coal-fired power plants, which it plans to release next June. The EPA already debuted its proposal for new power plants in September, and has since turned its attention to drafting rules for existing plants, which could have a much more profound effect on the coal industry, and on emissions, given that few new coal plants are being built anymore.
Craig’s economy is highly dependent on coal – there are three near-by mines and a large coal plant – so naturally, people wanted to tell EPA Region Eight Administrator Shaun McGrath, EPA Region Eight Air Program Director Carl Daly and other officials how carbon dioxide regulations would affect them. They were joined in Denver by boilermakers, coal company executives, trade groups and politicians from other coal-dependent areas around the West, many of whom took the EPA to task for scheduling its listening sessions far from areas like Wyoming and West Virginia where coal is mined and burned.
Jessica Unruh, a North Dakota state senator who works in the lignite coal industry, told the EPA that its choice of meeting locations “disenfranchises from the process people whose livelihoods will be directly affected.” And House Republicans went so far as to accuse the EPA of selective listening. “EPA conspicuously failed to schedule any listening sessions in states where electricity price increases may be the highest as a result of the agency’s (new regulations),” reads a blog post from the House Energy and Commerce Committee website. But, as political news website The Hill notes, the tour does include “states that produce large amounts of coal. The tour includes dates in Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania – which all ranked in the top ten as recently as 2011, according to National Mining Association figures.”
The distance didn’t seem to stop many coal industry employees from making the long trip to Denver last week, with speakers hailing from Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Fellow Westerners: We are pathetic! Sure, we’ve got our redeeming qualities, I guess, but one of them is not our ability to mitigate the environmental impact of our commute. We Westerners are a tribe of steering-wheel-gripped, fossil-fuel-burning, trapped-in-a-tin-can-in-traffic creatures, guided along highways not by eyes and mind, but by the tinny, seductive voice of our iPhone GPS.
At least that’s what the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests, which I will present to you shortly, in groovy graphic form, if you can keep your eyes off the road for that long. In the meantime, you may have already heard the good news: We’re getting better. Americans collectively are driving a little bit less, even those of us in most of the rural West, where the combustion engine is king. And, says the advocacy group that published the findings, the wane in our driving addiction has little to do with the fact that we can’t afford it, thanks to the crappy economy.
The much-touted report, put out in August by the USPIRG Education Fund, found that residents of all but seven states drove less in 2011 than they did in 2005. Coloradans on average drove a whopping 11.4 percent – or 1,172 miles – less, while Arizonans cut their time in traffic by nearly 9 percent. Even drivers in wide-open Wyoming, the most automobile-happy state of all, decreased their annual mileage by 8.5 percent.
When the Driving Boom first stalled out in the middle of the last decade, it appeared to be the direct result of increasing gas prices followed by economic collapse. People simply could no longer afford to drive as much as they had before. As the economy revved back up, so too, it seemed, would our collective vehicles. And in some isolated cases, that’s exactly what happened: North Dakotans drive more miles now than they ever have before, and 12 percent more than in 2005. Yet that’s a special case, surely driven by the oil and gas boom and all the extra driving the boom requires.
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Forty-five of the world’s top oil and gas producers received a letter, released at the end of October, that must have come as something of a wake-up call. Seventy investors that control a total of $3 trillion of those companies’ assets sent off the missive with one question in mind: What’s going to happen to our investments, once restrictions on green house gas emissions tighten?
“As long-term investors, we see the world moving toward a low-carbon future, in which fossil fuel reserves that companies continue to develop may actually become a liability, which could take a toll on shareholder value,” said Jack Ehnes, CEO of California State Teachers’ Retirement System. CalSTERS is one of the country’s two largest pension funds – both of which signed the letter.
A report put out by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the group leading the 70 investors’ inquiry, partnered with the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, paints a grim picture of the future of fossil fuels. Granted, it’s any environmental advocacy group’s aim to make polluting the planet look like a raw deal, but one of the report’s more telling figures is that as much as 80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are already a liability. In 2012, 200 of the world’s biggest publicly traded fossil fuel companies forked out about $674 billion to find new reserves. Yet most of those could become “unburnable,” the report says.
Four years ago, when I was 25, I went to Alaska to work as a wilderness guide. I bought my first pair of XtraTuf boots and my first set of head-to-toe rubber rain gear, and between seven-week trips in the backcountry, lived above a Laundromat that smelled perpetually of halibut.
The first spring, my boyfriend and I celebrated the returning light by taking a trip to Juneau to go skiing. Only it rained the whole time, and instead of skiing we sloshed through the alleys and backstreets, lingering in bookshops and stopping at every coffee shop we could find. The last night before catching the ferry home, we stayed at the state’s oldest hotel, The Alaskan. Even on a weeknight, the bar – a former speakeasy – was utterly raucous, and the adjoining hotel was much the same. When it first opened in 1913, the building operated as a thinly-veiled Victorian brothel, and in 2010, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could imagine that it still was, that the man with the stained white beard spinning across the dance floor had just paid his tab with a sack of gold flakes and would soon slip upstairs behind a woman's lace stockings.
The wallpaper was yellowed and peeling, the wood floors scuffed and creaky; the entire place smelled faintly of spilled beer and musty sheets. The walls were thin – in most rooms, you fell asleep (or passed out) to the sound of boot-stomping fiddle music drifting from the bar. If you were in Juneau and wanted a good night's sleep, you went to the Westmark or the Best Western. If you wanted an experience to remember, you went to The Alaskan.
That was before the reality TV craze struck Alaska, turning the Last Frontier into something akin to the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” This year, in addition to “Deadliest Catch” and “Alaska State Troopers” – the old standbys – the 49th state is getting “Alaska Gold Diggers” (five Newport Beach women reviving their grandfather's old mining claim), “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” a show in which an interior designer and a consultant give hotels the touristic version of an extreme makeover. The show has been to Alaska before, to Yakutat's Glacier Bear Lodge, where celebrity consultant Anthony Melchiorri, an admitted germaphobe, was appalled by the old carpets and fish guts outside the doors. The owners reportedly spent $100,000 on renovations following his suggestions, and occupancy rates increased only 1.5 percent.