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From climate change and renewable energy to environmental cleanup, Denver is emerging as one of the premier places in the nation for a “green” learning vacation.
Not only is the city dedicated to sustainable development and ecologically friendly practices, but Denver also offers two national research centers that have tours and exhibits about the Earth’s climate and renewable energy, and a world-class museum of nature and science. Nearby, it’s possible to actually tour an environmental disaster area that was transformed into the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country.
It's fitting that Denver has become a tourism center for the study of global warming, because few areas on earth have experienced more dramatic climate changes than Denver. The area around the city has been a tropical rainforest, a flat desert and a redwood forest, and it was once buried under an inland sea. Rhinoceroses, giraffes and lions have lived in Denver, as did a wide variety of dinosaurs.
The amazing climate changes of the area come to life at the Ancient Colorado exhibit in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science (2001 Colorado Blvd.). A series of large murals depict the Denver area over 300 million years of time and explain how climate changes alter the landscape and the creatures that roam it. In the museum's Prehistoric Journey exhibit, there is an impressive collection of dinosaur bones, many of which were found in the area. In addition, the Museum (the fourth-largest museum of its kind in the nation) provides highly acclaimed traveling exhibitions, stunning IMAX films, 80 intricate dioramas, the world's most advanced digital planetarium and groundbreaking scientific research projects.
Twelve miles west of the museum is Dinosaur Ridge (16381 W. Alameda Pkwy, Morrison). The bones of some of the largest dinosaurs, including the brontosaurus and the stegosaurus, were first discovered here in 1877. It's possible to view dinosaur tracks that were made on a flat beach of an ancient inland sea, but are today at a 45-degree angle on the side of a mountain ... visible proof of the dramatic effects that climate and geological changes can have on Earth.
15013 Denver W. Pkwy., Golden
Located 12 miles west of Denver, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the nation's primary laboratory for research and development of renewable energy. NREL's mission is to help our nation discover and use renewable resources of energy to power our homes, businesses and cars.
Through a series of exhibits on renewable energy, the impressive Visitors Center tells the story of the important research that is taking place at this laboratory. The building itself is an exhibit on passive solar energy and features an innovative Trombe wall – the building's most striking architectural feature. The huge, undulating wall has five sections, each angled in a "V" shape. Windows on the south side of the "V" provide natural daylight and early morning heat, as well as spectacular views of the surrounding high rocky buttes.
For tour information and other programs, see NREL's Education Center.
6550 Gateway Rd., Commerce City
Located just 11 miles northeast of downtown Denver, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge recently experienced a major environmental restoration program that transformed it into one of the largest urban national wildlife refuges in the United States – a vast improvement over its previous title as one of the most polluted spots on earth. Prior to World War II, the arsenal was farmland, but in 1942, the U.S. Army bought 30 square miles of land to establish Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical weapons factory.
After WWII, the army leased land to private companies that produced commercial pesticides. During the early Cold War of the 1950s, the Army again produced chemical weapons here to counter the Soviet threat. There were few environmental laws before the 1960s and chemical production at the Arsenal resulted in contamination of soils and groundwater at the site. The project, completed in 2011, has been called one of the largest environmental cleanups in history.
In 1986, while investigating the extent of the pollution and ways to clean it up, biologists discovered the Arsenal was home to a large population of wintering bald eagles. The discovery of eagles made people take note of the extensive and healthy wildlife populations throughout the large buffer zone of the Arsenal.
While the industrial core of the site was contaminated, deer, prairie dogs, coyotes, and many species of hawks, owls and other birds thrived in the abandoned fields, grasslands and woodlots that had been protected from development for 40 years.
In 2004, 5,000 acres of land was transferred from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the area became a National Wildlife Refuge. In March 2007, 16 head of bison were introduced to the Arsenal, the first buffalo to roam the prairie east of Denver in a century.
Today, visitor opportunities include nature programs, guided wildlife viewing tours, fishing, wildlife photography, and hiking on more than nine miles of nature trails. The Wildlife Drive allows visitors to see the Refuge at their own pace.
1850 Table Mesa Dr., Boulder
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is a great place to start a "green" vacation. Located northwest of Denver at the base of the Rocky Mountains, NCAR is dedicated to studying the Earth's atmosphere from the ocean floor to the sun's core. This is also one of the most important research centers in America studying climate change, pollution and severe storms and the effects these can have on mankind.
A free museum is open seven days a week, offering more than two dozen interactive exhibits that explain weather phenomena and atmospheric science. One exhibit shows you why the sky is blue, while another lets visitors build a tornado and discover why it spins. There are interactive exhibits on how lighting works and what causes microbursts. An exhibit about climate change shows how conditions have changed since prehistoric times, using a two-story mural that depicts the layers and features of the atmosphere in colorful detail.
The NCAR complex itself is worth a visit. Built in 1967, it is considered one of architect I.M. Pei's greatest masterpieces.
"You just cannot compete with the scale of the Rockies," Pei wrote at the time. So he designed a building that harmonizes with the mountains and resembles the ancient Indian cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde with a series of square towers on different levels. Woody Allen used the building as a futuristic city in his movie Sleeper.
NCAR is also the starting point for the Walter Orr Roberts Weather Trail. This unique half-mile trail has 11 viewpoints, where exhibits explain different facets of the meteorological conditions that exist in the area. Here you can learn why the town of Boulder often receives fierce winds (gusts of 137 miles per hour have been recorded) and why Denver, located down on the plains, receives much less snow than the mountains.