LiveScience confuses facts in Colorado flood story

Until now I’ve had confidence in the online journal LiveScience. But a story I read there yesterday has left me with some serious doubts. It has several errors in it, which probably wouldn’t be noticed by anyone unfamiliar with Colorado’s Front Range. But in my mind they completely undermine the story’s credibility and cast a shadow over LiveScience as a whole.

The story, “Experts Predicted Colorado Flash Floods,” appeared September 13, 2013. It discusses the history of flash flooding along Colorado’s Front Range and the steps that have been taken to reduce the effects of such flooding in the future. It focuses on the city of Boulder, which sits right at the mouth of Boulder Canyon and directly in the path of floodwaters from the canyon.

The story’s third paragraph:

In 2004, the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center listed a flash flood in Boulder as one of six “disasters waiting to happen” in the United States. But scientists and emergency officials have been preparing for this week’s flooding since 1976, when a flash flood killed 145 people in Boulder’s Big Thompson Canyon.

It’s not “Boulder’s Big Thompson Canyon.” The Big Thompson Canyon is thirty miles north of Boulder and is an entirely different drainage. While it was the site of the 1976 flood, a wakeup call to everyone living along the Front Range, that event did not directly affect Boulder.

Another paragraph:

This week, officials closed Highway 34 in Big Thompson Canyon before the worst flooding hit. The road was soon washed out. Sirens and text alerts warned Boulder residents of the coming flood. At the University of Colorado, police evacuated students from married-family housing, one of the most vulnerable buildings on campus. People living in remote areas received personal warnings by phone from their local emergency officials, according to news reports.

Again, the Big Thompson Canyon is nowhere near Boulder. Highway 34 in Big Thompson Canyon was closed during this year’s flooding, but the writer is talking about events in Boulder and should have said Highway 119 in Boulder Canyon was closed.

Apparently the author heard about the 1976 Big Thompson Flood and somehow thought the Big Thompson Canyon was adjacent to Boulder. She conflated two different stories about two different canyons that have no direct bearing on one another.

Adding to the confusion is an accompanying photo labeled “Bear Creek.” I had no previous knowledge of a Bear Creek in Boulder and could not find an actual creek by that name on any map. Why would you include a photo of Bear Creek, particularly when the caption doesn’t say where Bear Creek is and the story doesn’t mention it? Boulder Canyon’s Boulder Creek is the crux of the flooding problem, not Bear Creek.

And then there’s this: The story quotes Matt Klesch, a hydrometeorologist at the University Corporation for Academic Research (UCAR) in Boulder, three times — and misspells the name every time. It’s Kelsch, as can be seen on the UCAR website. I discovered this when running a search on one of “Klesch’s” quotes; Google kept asking me if I meant Kelsch, which happens to appear in a different LiveScience article. That article also uses the Bear Creek photo but a different caption that explains the creek is in south Boulder.

Finally, as if all this weren’t bad enough, the story was picked up and repeated by numerous other sources. A quick search reveals that the erroneous statement “a flash flood killed 145 people in Boulder’s Big Thompson Canyon” was repeated by Yahoo News, National Review, NBC News, Accuweather, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. This story’s misinformation is now in wide circulation and will remain so potentially forever, even if LiveScience corrects it.

Did no one at LiveScience double-check the facts in this story? Didn’t anyone bother to look at a map? It wouldn’t have been that difficult and wouldn’t have taken much time.

I wrote to the author, Becky Oskin, pointing out some of the errors, and to LiveScience publisher TechMedia Network. It will be interesting to see what if anything happens.

(July 7, 2017: To date the story has not been corrected and the comment I left has beeen removed.)

Boulder Canyon and Highway 119 west of Boulder, Colorado
Big Thompson Canyon and Highway 34 west of Loveland, Colorado
Loveland is approximately 30 miles north of Boulder
Big Thompson Canyon, Highway 34, and Loveland are roughly 30 miles north of Boulder Canyon, Highway 119, and Boulder.

13 thoughts on “LiveScience confuses facts in Colorado flood story

    1. I only noticed because I’m familiar with the locations mentioned. As to how and why the errors occurred, I’ve no idea. Lack of research, confused or lost notes, keyboard slips — who knows? The digital age has given us so many more ways to screw up.

  1. With so many other sources picking up and then spreading the errors in the LiveScience article, it’s clear that they’re seen as a credible journal, and that mistakes by a credible journal can lead to massive misunderstandings!

  2. Twenty years ago in our scientific publishing group we proofed everything with two people–one holding copy and the other reading he proofs aloud. Computers were just coming into widespread use in publishing. Ten years ago, I returned to the same group to do some writing under a contract. Everything was computerized and proofing had been abandoned. Checking a few publications was enough to show quite a few errors were making it into print. Errors rarely got through in the old process. But no one seemed to be concerned. I concluded that the more slap-dash approach to everything on the internet had been a factor in changing the culture itself. Everything in publishing is getting sloppier, as you show in your analysis of the LiveScience piece.

    1. I used to proofread in the old days just as you described. That, of course, would not have caught the errors in this article. A diligent editor or fact-checker might have. But increasingly they too are considered dispensable. That leaves the writer fully accountable.

  3. FYI, Bear Creek is a creek in south Boulder. I believe its actual name may be Bear Canyon Creek, and it runs down Bear Canyon, below Bear Peak, thru several densely populated neighborhoods. The normally small drainage became a raging river during the September 2013 flooding. It breached its banks in many places, including one near my house, where it proceeded to burst through my basement windows and flood 8 feet deep. Boulder Creek, due to prior flood prevention efforts, was actually not one of the “cruxes” of the flooding problems during the Sept. 2013 events. Many other drainages ended up with larger destruction and damage. has several maps which show the various drainages.

    1. I figured out at some point that there is a Bear Creek in Boulder, although this LiveScience article was not clear about it. I was so upset about their confusing the facts that I couldn’t see straight. They never responded to my notes, and the article remains online and uncorrected.

      I am so very sorry to hear you were in the path of the flooding. I was in tears over the stories of damage and destruction. My brother lives there (although up on Sugarloaf) and I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to and through there, as well as having attended CU for a year back in the early ’60s. I hope you and your neighbors have managed to recover and get back to something resembling normal. I know many people in other areas still have not.

      1. And thank you for the link. The maps are very helpful and I see now exactly where Bear Canyon Creek is. No wonder I missed it. I was looking for more of a west-to-east course. And I didn’t realize how widespread the damage was as a result. I’d pictured most damage as being along Boulder Creek.

... and that's my two cents