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In a lot of ways, the world seems more dangerous and things seem more and more out of control. Perhaps it’s just our perception on our current reality, and the fact that with modern technologies we are constantly bombarded with information (much of which has a negative slant to it). But when it comes to flooding, and natural disasters in general, does it seem like it’s getting worse?
It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves and so we decided to do a little research to see what data and scientific studies say.
Natural disasters are on the rise
When you just look at the numbers, it’s pretty stark. Government agencies have long maintained a database to track natural disasters (defined as geological events causing at least 10 deaths and 100 injuries). In 1970 there were 78 reported natural disasters. By 2004, that number had increased to 348. As with any statistic, you have to dive deeper to understand the context. Part of that increase is probably due to better communication and a more concerted effort by governments to track these events. But while that explains a small percentage of the increase, the overall trend is still present.
But what about flooding in the United States? Yep, that’s on the rise too. Here’s an interesting illustration that shows the frequency of flood events as compare from 1960-1990.
Illustration provided by NRDC.org
Why is flooding more prevalent?
This is a hotly debated topic, and once you introduce the phrases ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ it moves from a debate to a yelling match. We’re not much for yelling matches, but we do think it’s worth exploring possible explanations. So we’re going to address climate change and provide some possible explanations for why it could be causing an increase in flooding damage.
What warmer temperatures do…
We aren’t scientists or meteorologists. That said, we’ll do our best to explain what we’ve learned. In general, a couple of things happen when air temperatures rise:
Warm air holds more moisture. Once that warm air meets cooler air, condensation occurs. In other words, if you have more prevalent warmer pockets meeting colder pockets of air, it’s going to rain more. More rain means more basement floods and other damage.
Warm air stalls jet streams. Jet streams are the high altitude wind patterns that travel across our planet and bring weather in and then move it out. Jet streams are propelled by the difference in temperature between the arctic and equator regions. The greater the contrast, the more ‘fuel’ for jet streams. When those differences decrease, the jet streams can stall, meaning weather patterns can get stuck over a certain area for long periods of time. If that weather pattern consists of rain, the duration of the storm can be unusually long and cause a massive amount of flooding damage.
Increased footprint & population growth
But it’s not just due to warmer temperatures. Some flooding damage can be explained simply because there were things built that could be damaged (not to mention people living and working in those areas). As our globe’s population has exploded, we’ve needed more space. In many cases, that means tempting nature by building in areas that are more prone to flooding. 100 years ago people knew not to build there. Now, as our needs increase and our technological capacities increase, we ignore the warnings and we build. And then nature comes along and reminds us that despite whatever efforts we made, she’s still in charge. It only stands to reason that as global populations rise so too will the frequency of flooding disasters. So while we wish we had a rosy outlook on the future as it pertains to these natural disasters, we agree with most scientists. For a multitude of reasons, it’s only going to get worse.