As the flash floods in Kentucky claim lives and continue to leave behind a trail of devastation, residents and officials in the state are increasingly grappling with the costly impacts of the climate crisis.
Earlier this week, the state saw eight to 10 inches of rainfall in a 24-year period, marking what experts are calling a 1-in-1,000 year rain event. Amid the onslaught of rain and catastrophic flash flooding, at least 25 people have died while dozens more are reported injured.
Kentucky governor Andy Beshear has warned that the death toll will likely rise as officials struggle to reach certain areas of the state that have been badly affected by the floods.
On Thursday, Beshear said that the flooding was the worst that he has seen in his lifetime. “I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky. I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything. I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response to it. And the answer is everything we can,” he said.
However, to climate scientists, the answer to such frequent and drastic weather events can be attributed to climate change that has largely been human-caused and expedited.
Jonathan Overpeck, an earth and environmental sciences professor at the University of Michigan, explained that because human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels have significantly warmed the atmosphere in recent years, the atmosphere now holds more moisture than it used to. As a result, whenever rainfall occurs, it is more drastic.
“This means the risk of flooding is going up dramatically over much of the planet where people live, and Kentucky is one of those places. The evidence is clear that climate change is a growing problem for Kentucky and the surrounding region–more floods like this week, and more floods when wetter tropical storms track north over the state,” Overpeck told Inside Climate News.
Flash floods happen as a result of torrential rainfall that occurs within a short period of time, often resulting in the water having nowhere to go. Because grounds can often be already saturated, they are unable to absorb all the excess water.
“It gathers speed, it gathers power, it can pick up debris. And that is a flash flood. It’s really dangerous. It can carry away cars, it can carry away houses, and it can kill people,” said Rebecca Hersher from NPR’s climate team.
Opeck explained that in addition to more frequent flash floods, Kentucky will also likely experience more tornado risks in the future. Last December, Kentucky faced its deadliest tornado outbreak when numerous tornadoes tore through the state and killed 80 people. Among the multiple tornadoes, one cut through over 165 miles and was nearly half a mile wide.
“Heatwaves are clearly getting more dangerous and deadly due to human-caused climate change, and there is growing evidence that thunderstorms are getting supercharged by the warming atmosphere as well, and that can mean higher tornado risks,” he said.
As the eastern region of Kentucky struggles with rebuilding efforts that will likely take years, residents from the western parts of the state are also feeling the impacts of climate change in various ways.
Steve Fisher, a 61-year old farmer told the Guardian that the floods have driven him to use increased fungicide on his crops due high moisture content.
Additionally, volatile weather conditions have forced farmers like Fisher to change their farming methods and routines. One method Fisher now uses is no-till farming, a technique used to address soil erosion that washes away the topsoil which supports plant growth and helps to retain moisture during long periods of drought.
“We’ve gone from tilling the soil up and making the soil real loose to no-till farming which basically drills the seed into the ground without having to work the soil up to save the moisture in the ground to prevent moisture loss and soil erosion,” he said.