Climate change disrupts a major transport corridor
Broadcast date: week of August 6, 2021
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The Grizzly Creek fire, which began on August 10, 2020, kept I-70 closed for two weeks. (Photo: White River National Forest / US Forest Service, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)
The I-70 is a lifeline connecting east to west and an engineering marvel as it traverses the Rocky Mountains. But fires and mudslides along Glenwood Canyon are increasingly forcing I-70 to close, creating huge delays. As Colorado Public Radio’s Dan Boyce reports, this is just one example of the transportation problems associated with climate change.
CURWOOD: We’re staying out west now in Colorado. I 70 is the only major interstate highway that crosses the Continental Divide of Centennial State. And in 2020, it was closed for two weeks following the Grizzly Creek fire in Glenwood Canyon. As Colorado Public Radio’s Dan Boyce reports, this is just one example of the transportation problems associated with climate change.
BOYCE: Summer 2020 was a gangbuster for Steve Nieslanik.
NIESLANIK: Before the canyon flows, it was the best five weeks we have ever had.
BOYCE: He owns an Indian restaurant called “Masala and Curry” in the Colorado mountain town of Glenwood Springs. Tourists were flocking over the watershed from the densely populated metropolitan area of Denver, looking for that COVID summer vacation. And they were using the largest transportation artery in that region – in fact, it’s only – Highway 70.
NIESLANIK: And then when the freeway closed, it was like none.
BOYCE It was the Grizzly Creek wildfire burning near Glenwood Canyon. The canyon is so steep, so narrow, that it can’t even accommodate interstate routes. Instead, a massive bridge deck built into the side of a cliff carries the westbound lanes above the eastbound lanes for miles, while the Colorado River rushes below. Paul Chinowsky teaches environmental design at the University of Colorado. He says the hallway already has its share of dangers.
CHINOWSKY: Those big cliffs, levels of thieves – these are perfect areas where we could have the risk of roads being closed due to falling rocks.
BOYCE: Or landslides, flash floods, or avalanches – all kinds of things. Alright, alright, but we have to go through the mountains, don’t we? Janoski says the problem is that when these roads were built, engineers used their perception of the local environment at the time to assess risk factors.
CHINOWSKY: The problem with climate change is that all of these factors are changing.
BOYCE: Chinowsky helped write the transport chapter of the most recent national climate assessment. It indicates “an increase in drought and heat, coastal flooding and more heavy rains. All of this will reduce the reliability of the country’s travel infrastructure and increase the cost of maintaining it. “
The Grizzly Creek fire closed Highway 70 for two weeks in August. Even still, there is a section of Glenwood Canyon reduced to one lane of traffic each way. The canyon walls are made up of these impressive horizontal layers of ruined rock several hundred meters high, layers normally covered in greenery. Now what you notice is a lot of it is black and charred.
LEW: You can see right behind you that the fire has come up to the road.
BOYCE: This is Shoshona Lew, director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, on a recent canyon tour for state officials. The stabilizing vegetation having now disappeared from the sides of the cliff, this section will experience problems for years. More landslides, avalanches and closures due to future rain and snowstorms, storms that climate change is making more difficult to predict. Lou says his department has a team of geohazard experts.
LEW: They know what to look for when a stone might be vulnerable and they know how to identify when we need to chop stones down so they don’t fall on the road.
BOYCE: Meanwhile, the US Geological Survey is placing monitoring devices on the stretch to help the landslide prediction models and the US Forest Service is studying the potential for revegetation.
Examine only this most recent closure of Highway 70 and quickly see the cascading consequences. Greg Fulton runs a Colorado commercial group focused on the trucking industry.
FULTON: Most of the time, sometimes we think of I-70 as almost our own little neighborhood street.
BOYCE: Of course not.
FULTON: Businesses and consumers across the country are affected when there is a major closure of this highway.
BOYCE: You see, there just aren’t many reliable ways for a tractor-trailer to get through the Rocky Mountains. Fulton says Colorado options in addition to I-70 ..
FULTON: They twist and we don’t have that many passing lanes. There is also no truck parking there.
BOYCE: He says truckers outside of Colorado will often choose to bypass the state entirely during an I-70 closure. More mileage, more money, more time. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet on this Glenwood Canyon fire tour describes what happened here as an opportunity.
BENNET: We need to get more people to work in our forests to fight fires and do 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 do.
BOYCE: It could mean a lot of jobs in the rural west. Congress would have to pay for them, however. And when it comes to transportation spending, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that there is already a $ 1.2 trillion gap in funding for travel infrastructure nationwide. And that’s before the impacts of climate change are taken into account.
CURWOOD: This is Colorado Public Radio reporter Dan Boyce.
Learn more on the Colorado Department of Transportation website
Learn more about the 50th anniversary of CODOT of the interstate system
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