The Trail Canyon Fire on Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands seen on June 19, 2021. (Brad Pietruszka/BLM)
Nothing says summer in Colorado like exploring one of the state’s many breathtaking parks. However, from excessive heat warnings in Grand Junction and bad air alerts in Denver to smoke advisories in Eagle, hitting the trails could come with severe health and safety risks. While Colorado is no stranger to hot weather, the extreme, triple-digit temperatures seen across the state recently were noteworthy this early in the season. Climate change is causing average temperatures in the West to increase at a faster rate than any other part of the country, and, going forward, extreme weather events such as this one will only become more common. That is why there is no time to waste: We must enact strong federal climate legislation now.
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Colorado’s blistering temperatures are not isolated. Along with the state, much of the region recently was trapped under a “heat dome.” This high pressure system locks in warm temperatures and diverts rain. As a result, people were not only experiencing excessive heat but also a drought that impacted more than 88% of the West, including almost half of Colorado.
All of this is sending us into uncharted territory. This month, when Denver experienced its first triple-digit temperature of the year — 101 degrees Fahrenheit on June 15 — the dangerous conditions toppled the all-time high for that day by an additional 4 degrees. The previous record was set just last year. Western Colorado and surrounding states are seeing even greater temperatures. While extreme heat and drought are not unheard of in these areas, it is clear that climate change is making these events come earlier and last longer.
The heat is not a minor inconvenience either — it has severe implications for public health. Heat is the No. 1 weather-related cause of death in the United States over the past 30 years. For those without access to steady air conditioning, long stretches of unhealthily high temperatures can lead to heat exhaustion, dehydration and even heat stroke, which can be lethal without proper medical attention.
On top of that, high temperatures speed up the build-up of ground-level ozone pollution. The same fossil fuels that contribute to the climate crisis are also major contributors to the formation of ozone. Inhalation of the pollutant can cause acute respiratory issues, including asthma attacks. On June 15, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued an ozone action alert for more than nine Colorado counties, including Denver, as concentrations reached unhealthy levels for sensitive groups.
The triple whammy that coincides with heat and drought is, of course, wildfires. Last year was the worst fire season on record in Colorado, including the three largest wildfires ever seen in the state. However, dry conditions this year could result in a season as bad, if not worse.
There are currently four wildfires that are over 3,000 acres in size burning in Colorado, one quickly approaching over 13,000 acres. On June 24, CDPHE issued an Air Quality Health Advisory for wildfire smoke for two Coloradan counties with moderate to heavy smoke and multiple areas were subject to mandatory evacuations on June 22. Current hot and dry conditions makes these fires much harder to put out according to firefighters, and officials have said they do not usually see fire behavior like this until August.
There should be no question now what is driving these extreme weather events. More than a hundred years of burning fossil fuels has engulfed our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. For decades, when scientists warned about the dangers of climate change, deniers would state that this was a problem for the future, not the present. That is no longer the case. The compounding effects of heat, drought and fire have continued to spread and expand in recent years, and climate change will only accelerate these processes.
Currently, Congress is debating what could be the most comprehensive federal climate package this country has ever seen. It could mean historic investments in renewable energy, zero-emission vehicles and charging infrastructure, and increasing resiliency in our communities. While we cannot go back, we can choose how to proceed to create both a more livable future and present. I urge Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet to continue to advocate for bolder investments in climate action so we can start to solve this problem now.
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