Cost of Climate Change

A Waterlogged Mid West

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A Waterlogged Mid West

I mentioned in my last blog that we’ll be discussing The Beast from the East and Polar Vortices, however I was pondering over another event in the Midwestern United States that I’d like to introduce before moving on. Since we’ve discussed short term and long term single and recurring events, what happens when some of those coincide in the same place at the same time?

I briefly mentioned in the first blog post of this series that as the global average temperature increases, storage capacity of water vapour in the atmosphere increases. This rate – if you’re interested -- is 4% per 1º of warming… However, this is not uniform.

In the United States, between 1901 and 2015 annual precipitation has increased by roughly 4%, which one could tie to the increase water storage capacity as our world has been warming. But when the nation as a whole recorded that 4% increase, regions like the Great Lakes saw a precipitation increase by 10%. With a high storage capacity, there comes a higher potential for heavier precipitation events.

In early 2019, we saw just that. The conditions of a snow-heavy winter, frozen grounds and an extreme rain event led to a costly waterlogged spring for the areas affected. Hell began breaking loose in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa (among many other neighbouring states) when heavy rains began early March of that year. The record snows that had built up over winter (up to 3ft in some areas) were quickly melting away with the help of the rain, however the frozen ground beneath the meltwater and rainwater accumulation was a limiting factor for the ground’s capacity to take up this water. So, the free soils that were able to absorb some of the standing water quickly became oversaturated and rest had no place to go.

The accumulating water expanded into tributaries, streams and larger rivers, increasing water levels and the overall velocity of their currents. Many of these rivers were frozen before the rains came, so when the excess water came in to disrupt their peace, much of this ice broke up into blocks that came crashing through these now turbulent currents. The Spencer Dam in Nebraska turned to ruins and numerous bridges and roads were destroyed as ice and debris passed through their path.

Outside of damaged infrastructure, another key impact was the effect on agricultural production. When the floods hit and soils remained saturated, key planting periods for main crops were underway. Crops have specific planting windows in which they can be sowed to provide an adequate fruit at the end of its growing season. So as the ground was unsuitable for planting during this time, many farmers were unable to plant their crop whilst others suffered too long of delays and the fruit of their labour at the end of the growing season was significantly impacted.

Farmer along the Mississippi Delta still suffering waterlogged conditions, June 2019. New York Times

There was nothing that these areas could have done to protect their lands from this flooding event. According to the NOAA, the year through May 2019 was the wettest 12-month period on record. With damages to land and infrastructure totalling $6.2 billion USD for the affected areas, this event was numbered 51st costliest disaster in the United States since the NOAA began tracking the cost of natural disasters in 1980. As the atmosphere’s capacity to hold water vapour grows as the earth’s temperature rises, events like the 2019 Midwestern flood could occur more regularly.

It’s important to point out that although certain climatic or weather events can be disastrous, if there are instances like the excess snow and rains leading to the flooding described above, when they come together they can cause greater consequences from their combined impacts.

Now, as promised in the previous blog, look out for the next release in the Cost of Climate Change series to learn more about The Beast from the East and Polar Vortices!

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