Archive for the 'Global Climate Change' Category

Pity the Poor Pika

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

Earlier this month I went where I had been told that there were pikas, the cold-loving relatives of rabbits, near the Wolf Creek Ski Area. I saw one little critter harvesting grasses for the winter. How much longer would this animal be able to live there before he gets roasted-out by climate change?

Even before climate change makes his rock pile too hot, my little friend will probably be rousted out by human incursion. His home is close to the proposed and hotly contested “Village” at Wolf Creek.

Wolf Creek is already suffering from climate change; bark beetles are destroying the spruces. In places, all the mature trees look dead. The only green trees are small; it will be decades before the forest is healthy again, if ever.

Billionaire “Red” McCombs’ money bought 288 acres of land just north of the ski area. For 25 years his people have been trying to make that land into a lucrative venture. They want to build a city there that would dwarf Pagosa Springs on one side of the pass and South Fork on the other. In fact, if McCombs got his way, with the “maximum density development concept” the “Village” would be almost four times the population of both those communities combined!

Let’s look at the practicalities of building a recreational city just below the most dangerous pass in Colorado. The first problem is access. There is only a single lane forest road leading from highway 160 to the parcel. The Forest Service is considering a proposal by McCombs’ people to trade some of his land for land along the highway. His stingy offer is to trade 178 acres of his land for 204 acres of public property.

The closest commercial airports are Durango and Alamosa, each about an hour and a half away with good road conditions. Stevens Field in Pagosa is closer, but doesn’t have commercial flights because it is beset by mountains and bad weather.

The infrastructure for a posh resort is also problematic. The current electric grid is not sufficient to supply the proposed resort. There are no natural gas lines up there, but apparently the plan is to truck in natural gas. Gas might be used for generating electricity as well as for heat during the subzero winter nights. It might be practical to get big trucks up there in the summer, but unreliable in the winter when most needed. Although there is adequate water, the “Village” would require a completely reliable wastewater treatment plant that can function in arctic conditions. A malfunction would pollute the headwaters of the Rio Grande River and a beautiful trout lake, Alberta Park Reservoir, below this pipedream.

Health is the most important reason I hope that the “Village” doesn’t get built. This beautiful parcel of land at 10,400 feet would be a magnet for rich people from sea level. Most of these tourists would fly in and drive rental cars directly to the “Village”. We locals are accustomed to high altitude, but many of these visitors, especially the obese and elderly, will encounter problems. Some will have to drive to lower altitudes, but a few will become acutely and critically ill. They will have to be evacuated by ambulance or helicopter, but there are times when access by either will be impossible. The closest hospital is in Pagosa Springs, over half an hour drive with good road conditions, but it doesn’t have an ICU.

Mr. McCombs must be a clever person to have gotten so rich. I am sure that he has hired a first-rate staff to look at the problems of building the “Village”. I can only surmise that they are familiar with all the problems mentioned above. Perhaps Mr. McCombs just doesn’t want to admit that it is impractical to make a resort out of his 288 acres in Mineral County.

In order to get direct access to the highway, McCombs has offered the above unequal trade. Not only does this deal seem unfair, it would also bring the “Village” a step closer to reality. The Forest Service is accepting comments on this proposal. I suggest that you learn about the possible land exchange and send your comments about the Village at Wolf Creek Access Project to: The deadline is October first. I hope that you will agree with me that the Forest Service would be wisest to choose “NO ACTION” as the best possibility for us, for the health of possible visitors—and for my pika friend.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012


Population at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Wonderful news! The Symposium at the 2012 Telluride Mountain Film Festival will have as its topic POPULATION ! Paul Ehrlich and Dave Foreman will be two of the speakers. It should be exciting!

The Film Festival web site for general information is:

For more information about the Symposium go to:

I’ve never been to a Telluride Film Festival, but will be there this year. The dates for the whole festival are May 25th to 28th–Memorial Day Weekend. The Symposium will be held 9 am to 3:30 pm on Friday the 25th. I’ll see you there!

Beware of Technology

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Beware of Technology—6-2010

© Richard Grossman MD, 2010

The chief cause of problems is solutions.

(Eric Sevareid)

I once sat on an airplane next to an engineer specializing in failure analysis. I told him about my “rip-stop” condom invention, which I hoped would be less likely to tear. “I’ve never had a condom break,” he said. Then his face clouded and he added: “Well, just once. In Thailand.”

As a physician I am used to things not working out as planned. There is so much variability among people it’s unreasonable to anticipate the same level of success with every patient. However, people’s faith in technology is such that we expect a perfect cell phone connection every time and spill-free offshore drilling. We are shocked when our expectations are disappointed.

I will not write about how BP grossly underestimated the amount of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Neither will I dwell on the executives’ culpability in this catastrophe, nor the dishonesty that allowed industry and watchdogs to make an incestuous agreement about safety. Nor will I highlight BP’s reckless decisions and actions. I will write about the risk of our overdependence on technology.

I know a few of the local BP executives. They are intelligent, well meaning and honest. Like you and me, they are just trying to earn a living. It is not their fault that BP has taken advantage of our social and legal structure that allows large corporations to run roughshod over the environment and the rights of people.

Engineers don’t assume that their projects won’t fail. Rather, they estimate the “time to failure.” For some highly refined mechanisms, that may be many years. For complex new technologies it may be impossible to estimate the time to failure. Don’t ever believe a claim that anything is entirely reliable.

One of the ways to increase safety is to have redundant systems. This is a bit like what we have in a car. There are brakes to avoid an accident. If the brake fails (or if you fail to use it in time) the seatbelt will keep you from going through the windshield. Air bags offer a second level of safety.

Every gas well drilled in La Plata County has redundant systems in case of a blowout. There are annular valves to squeeze the pipe, and rams if the annular systems fail. If any one valve type were perfect, a second set wouldn’t be needed.

There were valves at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site that failed. Perhaps the failure was because the explosion cut the control cables—we don’t know yet what caused the problem.

BP won’t tell me if there was an “acoustic switch” on this drill rig. This type of valve is triggered to shut not by wires but by an acoustic signal. It is required in some areas, but apparently not for rigs in the Gulf. An acoustic switch has the advantage that it can still be closed if the wires to the drilling platform are cut.

This oil spill is a tragedy, but I can think of much worse. What if there were a nuclear accident instead of one with petroleum? As bad as crude oil is to the environment, it is far better than spreading highly toxic radioactive isotopes over the Atlantic!

I view the Deepwater Horizon tragedy as a wake up call: any technology can fail. Large, complex technology can fail disastrously. Even with “failsafe” precautions, disasters happen.

Coal and petroleum fueled the industrial revolution and revolutionized the way we live. Fossil fuels have also allowed our population to grow enormously over the past two centuries. Regrettably, growth cannot continue indefinitely. Continued growth and dependence on fossil fuels are major issues that our society is just beginning to examine.

Renewable energy is one way to avoid large disasters. Most of the electricity for our home comes from solar panels on our roof. Our generating system is small, safe and doesn’t burn fossil fuels. We depend, however, on natural gas to cook and keep us warm.

I draw several conclusions from the Deepwater Horizon experience. We shouldn’t allow any more nuclear power plants. Consideration of drilling in the Arctic Ocean must be stopped. Any further offshore drilling must be carefully supervised by governmental agencies that are also carefully monitored. There must be contingency plans laid out ahead of time for dealing with an emergency such the Horizon’s blowout. Perhaps the most powerful lesson is that we must become less dependent on fossil fuels.

This article may be copied or published but must remain intact, with attribution to the author. I also request that the words “First published in the Durango Herald” accompany any publication. For more information, please write the author at:

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States.