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The role climate change is playing on severe weather events in Kentucky

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Posted at 6:29 PM, Aug 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-10 19:16:17-04

(LEX 18) — As Appalachian residents in Kentucky work to clear mud and debris from historic flooding, scientists warn about the role climate change has on severe weather events.

After touring the damage and speaking to flood victims in Kentucky, President Joe Biden signed into law a major investment to fight climate change in the United States.

State Geologist William Haneberg says the flood was equivalent to a 636-year event with unprecedented rain of a thousand years.

"It is far beyond anything that we have designed for or anticipated usually because we don't think in terms of 600-year floods,” said Haneberg.

He says the damage and devastation are a sign of the effects of climate change unfolding right now.

“It's not a debate about whether it's happening. It's a debate about how fast it's happening and how severe it's gonna be and what the consequences are gonna be," said Haneberg.

He is the Director of the Kentucky Geological Survey, which among many things, studies and tracks geological hazards in the state.

The previous flood record for Kentucky was 14.7 feet set in 1957. The most recent flood got up to 22 feet.

"We're seeing more and more of those and as climate scientists look at it. They're very consistent with the expectations we have for global warming that all our predictions say as we move forward that Kentucky will be gradually a little bit warmer and a little bit wetter," said Haneberg.

Records prove that to be true. Over the past 50 years, extreme weather events have increased in Kentucky. From 1970-2016 the Commonwealth had 59 presidential disasters declared with 35 being declared since 2000, according to state data.

The 2018 annual flood risk assessment stated that Kentucky expects an average of 1-2 disaster declarations per year for the foreseeable future.

What that means for Kentuckians, Haneberg says unfortunately will mean more hardship.

While flooding is common in eastern Kentucky because of its steep slopes and narrow valleys, scientists also say strip and surface mining could be adding to the severity.

“We don't have a lot of the information we need to know but we do know that strip mining has affected about 7% of surface area in central Appalachia,” said Haneberg. "That's a tremendous footprint. We've altered the landscape. We've flattened it. We've removed vegetation and it seems like it must have an effect on the flooding, but we don't have enough information to know exactly how much."

Former mining regulator Jack Spadaro is calling for an independent scientist-led investigation.

“I’ve worked on approximately, say 20 cases involving flooding, or landslides that were caused by mining activities that damaged people's homes,” said Spadaro. “I can't say, you know, entirely that the flood was caused by mining because there was heavy rainfall. What I can say is that we have found in all the studies we've done that mountaintop removal mining, contour mining Valley fields were a significant contributing factor to the flooding or otherwise exacerbated the flooding debate more severely because of the rapid runoff causing what is essentially a flash flood issue.”

Haneberg says the question for residents to ask themselves now is whether it’s time to move and if that’s a feasible option.

“People have these very strong ties, but then you have to ask yourself are you prepared to go through this maybe during the course of your lifetime this will happen maybe two or three more times," said Haneberg.

The people are why Spadaro says he’s been working on mining regulation for more than 50 years.

The people are also why Haneberg says he hopes people will listen and heed the warnings.

"I think one of the worse possible outcomes is if we didn't try to study and try to learn about this flood and how to anticipate future floods,” said Haneberg.