Climate Change and Flooding in West Virginia

Jul 1, 2016

Catastrophic floods ravaged southern West Virginia on June 23rd, 2016. As people look to the future, many are debating the role of climate change.

Lots of people who grew up and live in southern West Virginia insist flooding has never been as bad as it is today. Not everyone agrees why. It's likely a combination of forces at work, but how much of a role is climate change playing?

The Debate

Michael Mann is a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and director of a center for climate research.

“Data are very clear. There is a substantial increase in what we call the intensity of rainfall events which is simply to say -- flooding. More extreme and more prevalent flooding.”

Despite that data, some scientists say...it’s hard to prove unequivocally on paper that climate change is creating more flooding or changing the nature of floods in West Virginia.

Steve Kite is a geologist and researcher at West Virginia University who specializes in earth surface processes, including things like floods and landslides.

“There are a number of papers out that have tried to prove it based on flood histories and to this point they have not really been able to say that that is the case.”

The Facts

One thing we do know for sure: West Virginia is naturally prone to flooding. In fact, it’s one of the most flash-flood prone states in the country, and maybe even the world. A lot has to do with the rugged Appalachian Mountains. Stacked ridgelines and deep hollows are really good at shaking moisture out of storms, and channelling it quickly downstream to larger rivers.

Climatologists like Mann explain that as the globe has warmed one degree celsius, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere has increased by about 5 percent. Mann compares the atmosphere to a sponge.

“The warmer the atmosphere is, the more water there is in that sponge and when you squeeze it you’re going to get more intense rainfall events, more intense flooding, and the data indicates that this is indeed happening in the U.S.”

Data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration indicates that while some places like California are experiencing extreme drought, the amount of water in extreme rainfall events has increased 70 percent in our region over the course of the last century. So climate scientists like Mann are not totally surprised by West Virginia’s once-in-a-millennia 2016 flood.

The Takeaway

Meteorologist Sean Sublette from the non-profit organization Climate Central in New Jersey says it’s a safe assumption that climate change played an impactful role.

“Climate change certainly raises your odds and raises the stakes,” he said.

So imagine an athlete on steroids. If he hits a home run, no one can directly attribute the success to drug use, but the chances of that athlete hitting home runs are greatly increased by the steroids. West Virginia is the athlete, the flood is the home run, and climate change is the drug.

And many scientists agree that there may be a cocktail of drugs in West Virginia’s case if you also consider land-use issues like timbering and mining practices as well as floodplain management.

Climate scientists say the bottom line in the coming decades: floods are going to happen, and likely more often, and more intensely.

Regardless of the cause, geologists and climatologists agree, West Virginians need to be intelligent about how we rebuild in the wake of recent flooding.