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'Warmer and wetter': US' changing climate helps fuel record Kentucky flooding, experts say

Louisville Courier-Journal 7/31/2022 Connor Giffin, Louisville Courier Journal

Surging water swallowed up swaths of Eastern Kentucky, carrying away cars and houses and decimating livelihoods Thursday and into Friday.

The flood could prove to be one of the worst in Kentucky's recorded history.

And although Kentucky and Appalachia have seen countless deadly floods, experts say a rapidly changing climate means the crises will likely get worse.

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By Friday morning, Gov. Andy Beshear confirmed the flooding had killed at least 16 people.

Kentuckians waited on roofs for the water to recede. Hundreds have been displaced, and it could take years for communities to rebuild, the governor said.

Video of Kentucky flooding:See the flooding in Eastern Kentucky, Garrett, KY, after historic rains

Some areas saw 7 inches of rain in the first day and more the following night, shattering water level records for some parts of the region.

This is the second year in a row Eastern Kentucky has faced historic flooding. Breathitt County, which saw severe damage from the most recent flood, also experienced high waters in March 2021.

The Stivers family, in Breathitt County, remembers thinking that flood was bad. They hoped their house, atop a few feet of bricks, would be protected from the next one.

They had to be airlifted out Thursday.

KY Flooding:Eastern Kentucky flooding ravages Breathitt County, conjures memories of previous disasters

Greenhouse gas emissions since industrialization in the late 19th century have exponentially warmed the atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture.

"Kentucky's climate is getting notably warmer and wetter," said Kentucky's state climatologist Megan Schargorodski in an email.

All that moisture has to go somewhere eventually.

"For every Fahrenheit degree the atmosphere warms, it can hold approximately 4% more moisture," said Peter Girard, director of communications at the nonprofit news organization Climate Central. "What goes up must come down."

Abnormally high amounts of moisture in the air can contribute to a faster onset of flooding, added Climate Central meteorologist Lauren Casey.

Rainfall intensity — more rain, faster — gives Kentuckians less time to prepare or evacuate when waters begin to rise.

That was the case Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, when water levels rose in the dead of night and caught many Kentuckians by surprise.

In Hazard, one of the towns hit hard in Eastern Kentucky, rainfall intensity has increased about 17% over the past 50 years, according to data from Climate Central.

Other parts of the state have seen similar trends. In Louisville, a river city covered with floodplains, rainfall intensity increased by a quarter over the same period.

"As we continue to put more carbon into the atmosphere, we're continuing to see these heightened effects," Casey said.

That's not to say that without climate change, Kentucky would have no floods. But with the shifting climate, disasters like the Eastern Kentucky flooding and others are likely to increase in intensity and frequency.

A study from the First Street Foundation last year found the current property damage cost of flooding in the U.S., at $20 billion annualized, could increase by more than 60% over the next 30 years because of climate change.

Extreme heat is another factor likely to worsen in Kentucky.

Heat has proven deadly across the U.S. this summer, on track to be the hottest on record, even after last summer saw broken records in some parts of the country.

Louisville's urban heat island effect, which can cause parts of the city to be 10 degrees warmer than neighboring rural areas, has been studied as one of the fastest growing in the country.

And Eastern Kentucky's deadly dump of rainfall comes even as Western Kentucky experiences severe drought. Similar contrasts are happening in Missouri and Tennessee, Schargorodski said.

Tornadoes, however, are an anomaly among natural disasters. Experts have not proven that climate change has an effect on how often dangerous tornadoes form.

"Human-warmed climate isn’t making violent U.S. tornadoes any more frequent," writes meteorologist Bob Henson in Yale's Climate Connections.

Mayfield, Ky. two months after the deadly December 10, 2021 tornadoes that ripped through Western Kentucky. © Matt Stone/Courier Journal Mayfield, Ky. two months after the deadly December 10, 2021 tornadoes that ripped through Western Kentucky.

Twisters are another clear natural threat to Kentuckians. Most recently, in December, a series of tornadoes touched down, devastating communities and killing dozens on the other side of the state.

Kentucky tornado:A massive tornado ripped through Kentucky for more than 200 miles. Here's its path

Beshear was careful not to directly attribute the recent flooding to climate change during a Thursday news conference.

"I believe climate change is real, I believe that it is causing more severe weather," the governor said. "With that said, I don't know about this one, and whether it is or is not connected. And I don't want to cheapen or politicize what these folks are going through."

Donate: Support The Courier Journal's environmental coverage

Yet many of the changes that experts say are needed to slow climate change in Kentucky happen in Washington — and in Frankfort.

"We need emissions reductions," Casey said.

But there are changes to made in the near-term, too.

"In some of these areas, we need infrastructure improvements," she added. "Our infrastructure is aging as it is to begin with, let alone capable of dealing with this new climate dynamic we're facing."

And despite record-breaking floods repeatedly showcasing the vulnerability of Eastern Kentucky to natural disaster, battering the small towns tucked in the valleys of Appalachian topography, state investment in infrastructure there remains low.

To support communities in Eastern Kentucky suffering from flooding, visit the state's relief fund website at

How to help:Want to help those affected by Kentucky flooding? Here's what you can donate and where

Reporter Eleanor McCrary contributed.

Connor Giffin is an environmental reporter for The Courier Journal and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter @giffin_connor.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: 'Warmer and wetter': US' changing climate helps fuel record Kentucky flooding, experts say

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