By: Brady Hill
Commuting into Boulder, Colorado, every day, I see scars on the Earth caused by an increasingly unpredictable climate. At a single vantage point driving down into Boulder Valley, I can point out wildfire burn zones from the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010, Lefthand Canyon Fire in 2011, Flagstaff Fire in 2012, Calwood Fire in 2020, Marshall Fire in 2021, and NCAR Fire in 2022 (1,2). The most memorable of these blazes was the recent Marshall Fire, which occurred on December 30th, 2021. Instead of a holiday winter-wonderland that Coloradans regularly experience, Coloradans were greeted with the most residentially-destructive wildfire in state history, which ripped through entire suburbs within a single windy day and destroyed 991 homes in its wake (3). Fortunately, the fire’s reign was brief, as snow the very next day helped to extinguish the flames. While the start of this fire still remains uncertain, the conditions that led to its rapid spread and mass destruction can be attributed to high and even hurricane-force winds blowing over a region that had seen vastly below average precipitation over the summer and fall, after previously experiencing a wetter than average spring (4). The bountiful spring growth shriveled over a dry half-year; snow specifically remained elusive during this dry-spell, as the nearby city of Denver recorded its latest first snowfall of the season on record (4). Regardless of what caused the spark of the fire, the winds and exceptionally dry conditions took care of the rest.
One of many neighborhoods destroyed by the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30th, 2021, in Louisville, Colorado, USA (5).
High winds are not uncommon in the Boulder area, and fires are nothing new to Coloradans. However, the concerning trends that scientists are measuring and that locals physically are experiencing point to a new-normal of fire-danger and precipitation irregularity that is being driven by human-induced climate change and an ever-warming planet. Eight of the 10 most destructive wildfires in recorded Colorado history have happened since 2010 (3). A fire season that typically lasted a few months in the late summer and early fall now stretches year-round. A recent study just found that the Western United States is experiencing the most extreme drought in more than 1,200 years, with Lake Mead and Lake Powell reaching their lowest-ever recorded levels; the study also linked the cause to human-induced climate change (6). Even while the recent chain of atmospheric rivers in California (in late December 2022/early January 2023) has provided relief to the extreme drought conditions in that specific state, most of California's reservoirs are still below their long-term average levels for this time of year and much of the state is still classified as experiencing "severe" drought (10). Another concerning environmental trend related to drought and wildfire is related to snowpack; in the spring that followed the Marshall Fire, Colorado saw troubling rates of snowpack melt-off — a faster melt means that the water supply is stretched thin more quickly (through absorption & evaporation) (8). Trends such as this leads to concern over continued drought, water supply issues, agricultural concerns, and increased risk of wildfires in the following year (8).
Water levels at Lake Powell are at their lowest level since the lake was created in 1963 (7).
So what is an individual to do with these relentlessly stressful climate trends that we read about, and now see with our own eyes in the regions in which we live? Climate change is no longer a hypothetical scientific argument that we heard Al Gore talk about in a documentary that one time. Through actual events and tragedies, a future with climate change is being painted into more detail with every passing year. How does one deal with the relentless anxiety that comes with seeing it affect our daily lives, whether it be locally, through social media, or dominating our news feeds? What does one do with the daily reminders of the global hardships on the horizon? How does one reconcile their hopes and dreams for their future, such as raising a family, when the future is so uncertain?
First of all, we have to find ways to act individually, despite the scope. Voting is an obvious first step. Vote to put people in power that make climate action a central aspect of their platform, both nationally and locally. Maybe you cut back on foods products whose production leads to significant carbon emissions and encourage others to do so as well. Maybe you improve your waste, trash, and recycling habits, as the methane from waste and landfills is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide within the first 20 years in the atmosphere. Maybe you ensure that your next car purchase is electric. Naysayers may say that electric cars still produce emissions through the battery manufacturing process, or because of the fact that the energy to charge them comes from an electric grid that relies on coal. That’s where hope and expectation come into play.
We have to hold on to hope, and in many cases, expectation. Yes, electric car batteries are not “emission-free”, but in situations like this we have to hope and expect that everyone and everything else in society moves in the right direction to address this issue. For example, if we buy electric, we need to hope and expect that the grid will achieve its goals of becoming carbon free, through economic pressures, regulation, or otherwise. We have to expect that manufacturing processes that generate these batteries are also affected by these trends and continue to become more sustainable. The individual action is driven by their expectation that the rest of society will also make the necessary changes to ensure a more sustainable future. On a larger scale, we must hope and expect that global leaders at conferences like the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) can actually make a difference in preventing the warming of our planet. On the individual level, we must vote these people into power.
Images from the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow, UK (9).
These hopes and expectations are key to addressing this challenge of our species — everyone must focus on what they can individually do, and expect everyone else to act and move in the same direction. This is the only way to address this challenge of our species; otherwise, discouragement and anxiety about the state of our planet will only lead to individual inaction. We must not relinquish hope and expectation. We must continue to act, and we must not forget to expect the same out of ourselves that we do out of the rest of society.