More than 100 people were left in their cars by the mudslides of July 29, which caused severe damage to Interstate 70 and closed Interstate 70. This closure caps several weeks of dangerous conditions in the scenic canyon formed through the Colorado Mountains by the Colorado River.
This was the latest closure in a string of closures that have occurred over the past two year for the area, which also serves as a major transportation corridor between the Rocky Mountains (West Coast) and the West Coast. They caused long delays for semitrailers transporting fuel and food and caused economic pain to businesses catering to tourists visiting Glenwood Springs.
These closures show the type of damage that scientists warn can result from wildfires caused by climate change. Although no injuries were reported in the incident, these slides have been responsible for deaths and destruction in California and elsewhere in the U.S. West in recent years.
People who live in Glenwood Canyon have had to adjust for years to the inconveniences that closures can cause. However, mudslides have become increasingly frequent and more intense since the Grizzly Creek Fire which scorched approximately 50 square miles (130 kilometers) last summer.
Officials from transportation have shut down a 46-mile (74 km) section of Interstate 80 and advised motorists driving between Denver and Glenwood Springs on the west side of the canyon to use another route. This adds approximately 250 miles (402 km) to their trip. Long-haul truckers are advised to take Interstate 80 north through Wyoming, until the canyon reopens. This could take several weeks.
According to state transportation officials, there are thousands of commercial vehicles that travel through the canyon every day on the interstate.
Many of the fuel, food, and other products distributed in western Colorado come from Denver via I-70. The detours add several hours to each trip, according to Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association.
Truckers may not be able to make the round trip in certain cases because of federal regulations on the time they can drive.
"This ripple effect is because we don't get the truck back until tomorrow. It's a ripple effect because we don't get the truck back until the next day. It puts it out of sync when it comes to drivers. Therefore, you need more drivers as well as more trucks," Fulton said. Fulton warned that delays could cause fuel and food shortages, late deliveries, higher prices, and other problems.
He said, "When we are carrying additional mileage and having extra time, and even the cost of a hotel room, that must be passed on at some stage."
Glenwood Springs has also been negatively affected by the mudslides. This is a place that attracts thousands of tourists every year to enjoy its outdoor activities like hiking, biking and fishing.
Lisa Langer, city's tourism director, stated that many attractions and hotels experienced a drop in occupancy, with some losing 25% to 50% during the weekend after the closure of the canyon.
Langer stated that the biggest problem is Front Range residents cancelling their trips to Denver and other cities because they don’t want to make the long trip. She has now shifted her attention towards attracting tourists from places with easy access.
Whitewater rafting companies had to reroute their routes, while some businesses were short-staffed due to employees living on the other side of the interstate. This engineering marvel winds through a narrow passage that is constrained by the Colorado River, cliffs rising hundreds of feet, and it's been difficult for them all.
Max Vogelman, co-owner of Stoneyard Distillery said that the closure had a "pretty big" impact on his finances and logistics. Stoneyard Distillery makes alcoholic spirits using sugar beets.
In May, the company opened a tasting area in Glenwood Springs. However, the distillery is located in Dotsero at the opposite end of the canyon.
Vogelman stated that the company's only employee in Glenwood Springs picked up additional shifts to keep it open. Another worker in Dotsero, however, has been driving nearly an hour each way along a series dirt roads for supplies delivery.
Vogelman said, "It certainly puts us in a bit a conundrum here. But we're trying making it work." He also tried to figure out how to distribute to other areas west of the canyon, and how to keep people coming back to the distillery to tour and drink.
We get a lot RV traffic. Many of them spend the night on our property. He said that they were all canceled.
Both he and other residents and business owners are realizing that they must adapt to the new canyon norms.
Scientists believe that special calculations are required to calculate how much global warming is responsible for an extreme weather event. However, wildfires in the American West have been made more difficult by recent heat waves and historic droughts linked to climate change.
Climate change has made the region warmer and dryer over the past 30 year. This is likely to lead to extreme weather and wildfires that are more frequent and more destructive. It could also cause more mudslides, as rain falls on burn scars.
Andy Hoell, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that last summer's precipitation in the Four Corners states was the lowest ever recorded, and that drought conditions are worsening.
Hoell, who studies extreme weather and drought in a changing climate, said that this is the cascading effect of an active wildfire season last year and heavy rain events this year.
A recent study led by U.S. Geological Survey researchers mapped landslide vulnerability in Southern California and found the area can now expect small, post-wildfire landslides almost every year, and major events roughly every 10 years. The state is now at greater risk of wildfires and landslides due to climate change-induced shifts between its dry and wet seasons.
In 2018, a torrent of mud and trees, along with boulders, swept through the California town of Montecito. This was the most devastating post-fire slide. Over 20 people were killed and many homes were destroyed.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stated Monday that he hopes climate resilience is "at the heart" of any federal or state infrastructure package.
He said, "We must look at things such as fire risk mitigation and retaining walls in a different way because of the reality that we face in Colorado."