Wildfire recently closed I-70 through Colorado for two weeks. It burned steep slopes above the highway, so future closures are likely due to rockfall and mudslides from climate change driven storms.
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Some of the effects of climate change are obvious and immediate – more intense wildfires, for example, which means more widespread destruction and heavier lingering smoke on the West Coast, not to mention the rest of the country. Other effects are more subtle and persistent, like an interstate highway that could see ongoing closures for years to come. Colorado Public Radio’s Dan Boyce takes us to a burned over narrow canyon now vulnerable to dangerous rockfall and mudslides.
DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Summer 2020 was going gangbusters for Steve Nieslanik.
STEVE NIESLANIK: Prior to the canyon closing was the best five weeks we ever had.
BOYCE: He owns an Indian restaurant called Masala and Curry in the Colorado mountain town of Glenwood Springs. Tourists were pouring over the continental divide from the densely populated Denver metro area looking for that COVID summer staycation. And they were using this area’s biggest – really, its only major transportation artery, Interstate 70.
NIESLANIK: And then, when the interstate closed, it was like none.
BOYCE: It was the Grizzly Creek wildfire burning through nearby Glenwood Canyon. The canyon is so steep, so narrow that it can’t even accommodate four interstate lanes. Instead, a massive bridge deck built into the cliff side carries the westbound lanes above the eastbound lanes for miles, all while the Colorado River rushes on down below. Paul Chinowsky teaches environmental design at the University of Colorado. He says the corridor already has its share of dangers.
PAUL CHINOWSKY: These great cliffs, you know, steep grades, these are perfect areas where we could have risks from roads being closed due to boulders coming down.
BOYCE: Or landslides, or flash floods, or avalanches – all kinds of stuff. All right. Fine. But we got to get across the mountains, right? Chinowsky says trouble is, when these roads were built, engineers were using their perception of the local environment at the time to judge risk factors.
CHINOWSKY: The issue with climate change is all of these factors are changing.
BOYCE: Chinowsky helped author the transportation chapter of the most recent National Climate Assessment. It says increased drought and heat, coastal flooding and more heavy rain events – all of it will decrease the reliability of the nation’s travel infrastructure and increase the cost to maintain it. The Grizzly Creek fire closed Interstate 74 two weeks back in August. Even still, there is a section of Glenwood Canyon reduced to one lane of traffic each way. The canyon walls consist of these striking horizontal layers of crumbling rock hundreds of feet high, layers normally covered in greenery. Now what you notice is so much of it is black and charred.
SHOSHANA LEW: You can see right behind you that the fire came right up to the road.
BOYCE: That’s Colorado Department of Transportation Director Shoshana Lew on a recent tour of the canyon for state officials. With the stabilizing vegetation now gone from the cliff sides, this stretch will see problems for years – more rock slides, avalanches and closures from future rain and snowstorms, storms that climate change make harder to predict. Lew says her department does have a team of geo hazard experts.
LEW: They know what to look for when a rock could be vulnerable. And they know how to kind of identify when we need to take rocks down in order to avoid them falling into the road. Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey is placing monitoring devices through the stretch to help landslide prediction models. And the U.S. Forest Service is looking into the potential for revegetation.
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BOYCE: Examine just this most recent Interstate 70 closure and you quickly see cascading consequences. Greg Fulton runs a Colorado trade group focused on the trucking industry.
GREG FULTON: A lot of time, we look at I-70 as almost our own little, you know, neighborhood street sometimes.
BOYCE: Of course, it isn’t, though.
FULTON: Businesses and consumers throughout the country get affected when there’s any significant closure of this highway.
BOYCE: You see, there just aren’t that many reliable ways for a semi-truck to get over the Rocky Mountains. Fulton says the Colorado options besides I-70…
FULTON: They’re twisting. And we don’t have as much in the way of passing lanes. Nor is there any truck parking there.
BOYCE: He says truckers outside Colorado will often opt to bypass the state entirely during an I-70 closure – more mileage, more money, more time. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet on that Glenwood Canyon fire tour paints what happened here as an opportunity.
MICHAEL BENNET: We need to put more people to work in our forest doing the fire mitigation and the work that can be done to help prevent these fires from happening in the first place and make them easier to fight when they happen.
BOYCE: That could mean a lot of jobs in the rural West. Congress would have to pay for them, though. And looking at transportation spending, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates there’s already a $1.2 trillion gap in funding for travel infrastructure nationally. That’s before the impacts of climate change are taken into account.
For NPR News, I’m Dan Boyce in Glenwood Springs, Colo.
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