Floods, Fires, & Global Warming

From August 12 to 17, 2016, thirty parishes in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, were hit by a massive rainstorm that resulted in the worst flood in the history of the area. In a 24-hour period, more than 2½ ft. (31.39 in.) (80cms) of rain inundated the town of Watson, a few miles north of Baton Rouge. The rain pounded the area for days, creating deep lakes where houses once stood. People had to be rescued off rooftops by boat and helicopter. 60,000 to 100,000 homes were reported to be lost or badly damaged. 13 people died. 20,000 were evacuated, and 3,000 are still living in public shelters. Recovery will take many months and cost billions of dollars for repair and reconstruction.

According to NOAA, the atmosphere in the area was supersaturated with near-record amounts of moisture sucked up from the warmer than normal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. When a low- pressure system moved in creating a storm system, the “highly precipitated” air came down in the form of torrential rain, resulting in what was termed a 500-year flood.

The National Academy of Science states, “Heavy rainfall is influenced by a moister atmosphere, a direct consequence of human-induced warming. As the atmosphere warms, its ability to retain water vapor increases.” A climatologist at Texas Tech explains, “Louisiana is always at risk of flood naturally, but climate change is exacerbating that risk, weighting the dice against us.”

2,000 miles west, at the same time the Southeastern US was dealing with too much water, California was in its sixth year of drought and dealing with its worst wildfire season in many years. Through the middle of August, wildfires had burned 200,000 acres (809km²) of forest and brush land, destroying over 1,000 structures and costing 7 lives. And the wildfire season extends for another 3 months and beyond.

In California, the problem is too little moisture instead of too much. A research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute said, “Climate change has exacerbated naturally occurring droughts, and therefore fuel conditions. The worse the drought, the more of a tinderbox forests become.”

As the planet continues to warm, events such as these will occur more often and become more extreme. Catastrophic floods are occurring every 5 or 10 years now instead of every 500 or 1,000 years. The wildfire season in California has increased by 78 days since the 1970s. Something has changed, and at least part of that change can be attributed to global warming.

Unless we can put the brakes on carbon emissions by quickly phasing to non-polluting power sources such as wind and solar, earth will continue to heat and set us up for more and more climate-related disasters.