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What We Can Learn from the Deadly Boulder Floods

We can keep arguing whether the devastating still–unfolding flood in Colorado was caused (or amplified) by climate change (or not) or we could get serious about addressing the climate crisis.

Boulder Creek swells in size after three days of heavy rainfall September 12, 2013 in Boulder, Colorado.
Photo Credit: AFP


On Thursday as I was reading about war and peace, headlines about a flash flood in Boulder kept arriving all through the day: “At least 3 dead in Colorado flooding; Boulder ‘overwhelmed with water’” (LA Times), “Flood threat still strong as 3 killed in Colorado” (USA Today), “Boulder flood: 2nd death confirmed, county calls in National Guard to assist with rescues” (Boulder Daily Camera), “Boulder Flooding: Deadly High Waters in Northern Colorado Force Evacuations, Cause Mudslides” (Huffington Post), …

Soon I’ll talk about the flood, but first the warning.

Six years ago, on September 14, I had walked along the Boulder Creek, following the blue discs in artist Mary Miss’ outdoor art installation “ Connect the Dots: Mapping the Highwater Hazards and History of Boulder Creek.” Both Mary and I were participating artists (“29 women, 12 men, 10 collaborations”) in what was quite possibly the first comprehensive art exhibition on climate change: “ Weather Report: Art and Climate Change.” The exhibition idea was conceived by Marda Kirn of EcoArts; was organized by renowned curator, writer and activist Lucy Lippard; and was presented by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) in collaboration with EcoArts.

My photographs from the Arctic were  presented at BMoCA and University of Colorado’s Norlin Library. I also gave a lecture at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), focusing on climate change issues in the far North. In addition to NCAR, Boulder also has the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Marda Kirn told The New York Times that Boulder has the “highest density of climate scientists in the world,” which the Times  affectionately mocked in their review of the exhibition, “as if climatology Ph.D.’s were stacked like rolls of paper towels at Costco.” Boulder was indeed a perfect home forWeather Report.

On that September 14, I had difficulty imagining: A deadly flood in that little creek, really?

Mary Miss wrote in her artist statement in the accompanying  exhibition catalog:

“How can the imagination be provoked to envision an event outside our daily experience, one that completely alters the landscape we occupy? How can the predicted flooding of Boulder Creek be made tangible to the residents of this city? … Looking from one point to the next, connecting the dots [painted blue discs], the level of a flood [500–year flood] is no longer abstract. This is one part of a larger study about the flooding of Boulder Creek that would more fully reveal additional aspects of the nature of a flood, and how future floods would affect the city.”

Her blue discs became very popular. Residents were not only enjoying seeing those attached to trees while walking or biking along the creek, but discs were disappearing too—vandalize would be too harsh a word, instead it’s more like people were taking a few back home like we take sand dollars from a beach. I helped Mary replace a few, fast. Mary Miss’ art was “a deceptively simple outdoor installation that powerfully illustrated the potential danger of climate change in the immediate locale,” art critic Suzanne Boettger  wrote in Art in America special issue “Art & Politics.”

For the installation, she had worked with scientists from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the US Geological Survey. In fact, art–science collaboration was one of the key strengths of Weather Report. “One of the principles of this exhibition…was to give artists access to scientists working in the fields that they hoped to address,” Lucy Lippard wrote. “This process was at once fruitful and delicate. (Scientists are determined to remain politically neutral in order to retain their objectivity; artists chafe at constrictions).”

Artists, however, are often not taken seriously when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. Lawrence Wechsler  had written an article on “artistic responses to global warming” in The Nation. Lippard pointed out that Wechsler “pretty much dismisses artists who address the issue ‘head on’.” She strongly objected to Wechsler’s “oversimplification” and wrote:

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