Gwen Christon had never seen the small creek behind her IGA grocery store in Isom, Ky. flooded before.
But during the historic flood that killed 39 people and devastated eastern Kentucky, this small stream engulfed the narrow valley with six feet of water; gobbling up the highway, Christon’s grocery store, and pretty much anything in its path.
“My shelves, my moved shelves had been lifted, there was only food and groceries and everything was a mess inside the building,” she said.
Christon started working at the store when she graduated from high school in 1973. She bought the store in 1998 and has been running it ever since.
Last week, she finished counting her inventory: $280,000 lost in the floods. Between the spoiled food and the mud covering the floors, she had to call in a biohazard team to deep clean the store, which she plans to rebuild with the help of a disaster relief loan.
A few years before Christon purchased the building, it had been subject to a flood assessment, but the bank ruled she was not in a flood zone.
“I know a lot of people talk about climate change, but to be honest with you, I’ve never touched on this subject,” she said. “I never wondered if it was damaging or not.”
Coal mined in Appalachia has helped Kentucky keep the lights on and the air conditioning blowing, but it’s also warming the planet. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas has quickly increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere.
These gases trap heat and have already warmed the planet by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the dawn of the industrial age. Kentucky saw at least a 1.5 degree increase annual average temperatures since the 1970s. Warming increases the frequency of heat waves, droughts and extreme weather events. It should also bring more rain to the region, according to the 2017 Ohio River Basin Climate Report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Chris Barton, professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at the University of Kentucky, said the 2017 study may already be out of date due to the record amount of rainfall that has occurred since then.
“Is this something that happens over a decade of change or is it really the effects of climate change?” Barton said. “I guess it’s the effects of climate change.”
A flood like no other
In the days leading up to the flood, most of Kentucky was exceptionally dry.
But for five days in late July, a series of thunderstorms repeatedly moved through the same area, bringing up to four inches of rain per hour, according to the Jackson National Weather Service.
Although it did not rain continuously at this force, radar estimates suggest six to 16 inches of rain fell during the five-day period in northern Clay and southern Owsley counties at east into southern Breathitt and northern Leslie counties, into Perry, Knott and Letcher counties.
“Honestly, I don’t think this area has seen anything like this, at least, in recorded history,” Barton said.
Rain fell on the rugged, worn peaks of Appalachia and poured into the narrow valleys of streams, or cries, where many people live.
“Primarily, the flat land is in the floodplain. This is where the roads are, this is where the power lines are, this is where people build their homes and live,” Barton said.
The rains flooded the small headwater streams that run through the Crees and the shallows between the mountains, Barton said. This flooding got worse where the streams met the rivers, creating enough force to bend steel, overturn vehiclestearing up tree trunks and sweeping houses and bridges.
In Whitesburg, the North Fork of the Kentucky River rose nearly 21 feet before the gauge broke, surpassing the previous flood record of 1957 by more than six feet.
Rainfall totals observed from July 25 to July 30 were more than 600% above normal.
Barton estimates that the flood lasted at least 500 years, but that concept is about to change.
“Now this event is part of the record, so if we have another 10-inch rain event next year, it becomes a centennial event and so on,” he said.
The link with climate change
Higher temperatures increase evaporation. Warmer air also retains more moisture. So as the planet warms, it supercharges the water cycle and contributes to heavier rains and flooding.
Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have found that heavier rains increase the risk of flash floods and river floods across the planet. In the United States, heavy rains are becoming more intense and more frequent, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, according to the National Climate Assessment 2018.
A study by the association Climate Central found 90% of 150 weather stations across the United States had seen an increase in hourly precipitation intensity (total rainfall divided by total hours with precipitation) since the 1970s, particularly in the River Valley. ‘Ohio.
Barton said Kentucky’s climate had a particularly wet spell with several of the highest annual precipitation in the state in the past five years.
By examining a 50-year dataset of weather events in Robinson Forest in eastern Kentucky, Barton is trying to better understand if this warmer, wetter period in the state’s climate history is cyclical. or is part of a long-term change.
“I think that’s the question we’re concerned about, the long-term effects of climate change, and are we going to see that become a more frequent pattern of rainfall in this region?” he said.
In order to determine the role that climate change plays in extreme weather events, scientists are turning to a new type of research known as “attribution sciencewhich attempts to measure how climate change is making extreme events more severe and more likely to occur.
At present, this science is still relatively young, but as climate models improve, the science of attribution will become more definitive. Regardless of whether climate change will be directly attributable to this event, climate experts say these are the types of extreme weather events Kentucky will see the most of in a warming world.
Climate Change and the Future of Rural Appalachia
Gazing out over the meadows of a reclaimed strip mine in Perry County, Lester Brashear reflects on how the weather has changed in his lifetime.
“When I was little, younger, we would sometimes stay out of school for a month or a month and a half because of the snow. I’ve only seen two snowfalls over 30 inches in the past 40 years,” he said.
Brashear is a farmer and former coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. He continues to operate a heritage farm that his great-grandfather established in 1820. He said the hot weather lasts longer than before and the rain falls more often.
“It takes about five days to get good, dry hay,” Brashear said. “And now, in the last two years, I haven’t had four days without rain.”
He said his dad used to butcher and tend his own pigs during the winter, which you can’t do anymore.
“And today, if you drag meat in November and December and most of January, the flies blow it away. You couldn’t heal him. It’s too hot,” he said.
Brashear expects him to be the last in his family line to work on his farm. He hopes the remaining small farmers will get the help they need to adapt to climate change and carry on their traditions.
If these floods become more frequent, Barton of the University of Kentucky said people may have to reconsider where they live and move away from floodplains, build on higher ground or build elevated structures like in coastal areas. facing sea level rise.
“We really need to think about the possibility of something like this happening again and becoming more frequent, especially as we rebuild,” Barton said.