Paul Andersen: Fair Game
August 17, 2009
Two weeks ago, Basalt was hit by an intense, midday thunderstorm that had the streets running like rivers. Marble-sized hail pinged off cars, and lightning struck nearby ridges like an artillery barrage.
Immediately after the storm, police sirens wailed as rescuers raced up the Fryingpan Valley to extricate a couple and their dog trapped in their car in the Fryingpan River. A huge boulder, loosened by the torrential rain, had rolled down the mountainside, crashed into the SUV, shoved it off the road, down an embankment, and into the river. Amazingly, there were no major injuries other than psychic scarring.
Last year, a similar cloud burst caused a flash flood in Seven Castles Creek, about four miles up the Fryingpan. The resulting mud flow roared through a narrow canyon carrying tons of rocks, mud, and broken trees. The mudflow ran all the way to the Fryingpan River and dammed the entire stream.
In early July, monsoon rains at the Maroon Bells brought down huge slurries of mud and rocks over the Crater Lake trail, leaving deep runnels through the aspens and evergreens and plowing down everything in their paths.
These events have geologic significance because they have reconfigured topographical features in lasting ways. What we are witnessing is weather-induced phenomena that have changed the landscape, probably through most of our lifetimes.
Climate change scientists speculate that severe, unprecedented weather will accompany global climate change. Some call it “global weirding” because weather patterns are getting knocked off their predictable trends and warping beyond historic experience.
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Exploring Seven Castles Creek long before last year’s big washout, it was obvious by the mud-spackled canyon walls that flash floods are recurrent. Last year’s flood, however, far exceeded past floods and stands today as the biggest in human history. The same holds true with the runnels on the Crater Lake trail.
Watching the landscape change before our eyes and witnessing the incredible power that foments that change is a humbling reminder that huge forces are at play in the world. A recent article in National Geographic described the Yellowstone caldera as a latent force that could change the entire world should it explode into what scientists call a “supervolcano.”
As if land-based phenomena aren’t powerful enough, the cosmos has its own latent force. Several weeks ago, an amateur astronomer, looking through his telescope, noted a huge scar on the surface of Jupiter. A celestial collision had left an Earth-sized divot on the largest planet in our solar system.
Man has become a global player by altering the climate and the atmosphere with a mere century and a half of industrialization, but our significance on a geologic scale remains insignificant compared with cosmic bombardments, plate tectonics, eruptive forces, glaciation and erosion.
It is humbling to witness violent storms hurling lightning bolts onto nearby peaks, at flash floods that can dam entire watercourses, at the U-shaped valleys in our mountains that once bore rivers of ice. Even more impressive are the faults and fractures of the earth’s crust that give evidence of deep instabilities.
Those deep, earth-shaping forces are so enormous and so pervasive that few of us can comprehend or appreciate them. For most of us, nature still seems more or less subservient to human desires, a mere backdrop to commerce, industry, and recreation.
Not until a boulder nudges a car off the road into the river or a flash flood sweeps away a home or a tornado, hurricane or volcano vaporizes a community do we begin to recognize the dispassionate Leviathan of nature that rules our lives and forms our world.