Floods in Tennessee: What role does climate change play?

During the past 48 hours, parts of Tennessee have been swept by record-breaking rainfall and unexpected flash floods that have killed at...


During the past 48 hours, parts of Tennessee have been swept by record-breaking rainfall and unexpected flash floods that have killed at least 21 people and left dozens of people missing.

“This is exactly the type of event we would expect to see with increasing frequency in a warming climate,” said Gary Lackmann, professor of atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University.

The Tennessee disaster comes just weeks after extraordinary flooding hit Germany, sending water crashing into the streets and causing widespread devastation. In the process, the President of the European Commission called these floods a clear indication of climate change. “It shows the urgency to act,” she said.

However, flooding is complicated. It can be difficult to determine whether climate change is the driving force behind an individual flood or is making it more catastrophic. Here’s why.

A warmer atmosphere contains more moisture, which can mean more precipitation. Tennessee saw immense amounts of rain over the weekend, including nine inches in three hours.

But flooding is the result of both heavy rainfall and the way the water is managed – through dams, dikes or retention basins – as well as the hydrology of a landscape, which references the way water flows, accumulates and drains from the ground. Turning forests or open land into more impervious areas, whether parking lots or housing estates, can reduce the amount of land available to absorb runoff.

One of the reasons the Tennessee flood was so deadly is that it was the type of small-scale storm that can challenge forecasting tools.

Small-scale storms can be more difficult to predict than large-scale weather systems like hurricanes, which rely in part on radar and satellite data. Any heavy rain, which produces heat, can cause poor performance of forecast models.

“This is sort of the worst case scenario, because it is a small weather system that occurs and grows rapidly,” said Dr Lackmann. “For these kinds of events, it will be really difficult to get a lot of lead time or forecast warning.”

And attribution studies – a type of research that aims to make links between climate change and specific extreme weather events – can take some time.

“It is not easy to attribute a single weather event to climate change,” said Dr Lackmann. But, he added, “when you start to see these events happening more frequently, it becomes clearer.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Floods in Tennessee: What role does climate change play?
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