From Drought to Drenched: Colorado’s Volatile Weather

A wild year of weather in Colorado continues, with a lack of rain giving way to far too much. Is this what life in a warmer world will be like?

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Colorado has faced drought, and now it's under water

If there’s a positive side to the biblical floods that have swamped parts of Colorado over the past week, it’s that this particular weather disaster will help alleviate another weather disaster the state was already experiencing: drought. Until last week, more than 90% of Colorado and all of the Front Range area, which includes hard hit Boulder, was in some state of drought. In fact, the Colorado River basin, just across the mountains, has been in a state of drought for more than a decade. The lack of water hurt farmers and contributed to terrible wildfires earlier this year.

Obviously a week of the heaviest rain parts of the state has ever seen will help alleviate some of those drought worries, as John Ingold and Bruce Finley wrote in the Denver Post:

State climatologist Nolan Doesken said a new drought forecast will show “markedly better conditions for all of the state.” His report will be finalized Tuesday.

“Drought as we know it will be ended at a number of locations,” said Doesken, who is based at Colorado State University.

So that’s good, although the sheer speed of the floodwaters flowing down the South Platte river means that irrigators aren’t yet able to take advantage of the rain. But there’s another problem. Bouncing from drought to flood will make it that much more difficult for officials to prepare for either catastrophe in the future. And it may well be that a warmer world will see more such violent weather swings.

Here’s how Jennifer Pitt of the Environmental Defense Fund, writing from Boulder, puts it:

If you find the news about Colorado’s latest disaster confounding, you’re not alone.  The floods of 2013 follow on the heels of a summer of drought and extreme wildfires.  That we are experiencing these extremes in a single year is truly incredible.  Call it a case of climate disaster whiplash.  Until last week, it has been easy to focus on the clear signal forecasting that it has gotten warmer and drier, and that it will continue to do so as the decades pass.  But in the midst of that drying trend, the models also tell us to expect rare wet extremes not seen before. Climate scientists warn of increasing VUCA, an acronym of military origins that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  In other words, hang on for a wild ride.

I often write about the importance of preparing for and adapting to extreme weather, which will still strike even if we do manage to bring climate change under control. But how do you prepare for volatility, or predict the uncertain? If you were the mayor of Boulder, would you invest in better water management, to make the city drought-proof? Or would you put your money on flood defenses? The truth is you may need to do both—although too often, we do neither.

For now, Coloradans, after praying for rain, will hope that it finally stops. The floods, though, will still continue—the swollen rivers will crest in nearby Nebraska, which is already bracing for the impact. From the National Weather Service:

The exact crest stages are still uncertain as the waters are just moving into Nebraska. It is possible that upcoming forecasts could change, so those along the river should stay tuned for updated information.

Volatility and uncertainty. It’s just getting started.