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Rise up

SoVaNow.com / May 03, 2017
That was some rainfall we had last week, huh? Southside Virginia got socked by storms that lasted from Saturday afternoon through Tuesday and submerged low-lying areas on the Roanoke river basin under floodwaters. The Dan River surprised almost everyone by laying waste to the National Weather Service’s initial forecast for only moderate flooding in Danville and South Boston. Of course, floodwaters that wash up there eventually flow down here, so Kerr Lake jumped up by quite a bit in a week’s time as well. Rising water levels put a damper on weekend fun on the lake, although like all else in life, this, too, shall pass.

It’s April and heavy rainfall isn’t exactly an unprecedented story. Yet what distinguished this storm from so many others is how it utterly flat-footed it caught even those who watch closely for flood risks. This was especially true in South Boston, with its Riverdale commercial district lying south of the downtown area (in a flood plain, naturally). Riverdale merchants are forever on high alert for storm events that can inundate their buildings and shut down business, yet this time they (and the National Weather Service) were flummoxed by the severity of the flooding. One car dealer lost a couple of dozen vehicles when the Dan River rose much faster than expected, and other businesses were hammered, too, if not quite so severely.

Covering this story for our South Boston sister paper, the News & Record, I put in a call to the Blacksburg office of the National Weather Service and spoke to the chief meteorologist there, David Wetz. He was very helpful in explaining how the sudden rise of area rivers (the Dan, Staunton, Hyco and others) resulted from the confluence of two factors: first, heavy rain fell upstream on the Roanoke river basin, and two, the storm more or less stopped moving and spun like a top over a fixed 100-mile area, roughly from Henry County to Raleigh to Mecklenburg. As badly as Southside Virginia was hit, precipitation amounts in the Raleigh area were downright eye-popping: up to 8 inches of rain came down in a day’s time. Wetz described the storm as “probably a once in a 25 year event,” and compared it in behavior, if not sheer power, to a vicious rainstorm that devastated South Carolina with widespread flooding two years ago.

Now that caught my attention. (Wetz noted that the biggest difference in the two storms is the South Carolina system pulled in moisture from the tropics, whereas this one did not.) The Weather Channel observed that the October 2015 Palmetto State disaster “will go down as one of the most prolific rainfall events in the modern history of the United States.” Just outside of Charleston, S.C., a shocking 27 inches of rain fell from Oct. 1-5. No hurricane in recorded history has dumped that much rain over South Carolina in such a short period of time. (It should be noted, however, that Hurricane Joaquin, though far offshore at the time, played a major role in the formation of South Carolina storm.) “Part of the reason the South Carolina floods became so catastrophic is that tropical downpours lashed the same areas for several days,” noted the Weather Channel, in harmony with Wetz’s analysis.

The South Carolina storm was described as a once in a 1,000 year event. The trouble with these thousand-year events is that they’re happening with increasing frequency over ever-tighter timeframes. It’s no secret why this is: the world is getting hotter.

In its annual “State of the Climate” report two years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) observed that 2015 was the warmest year on record at the time. (That record has since been eclipsed, in 2016.) Not only did 2015 beat the previous record for worldwide high temps, “[t]he 2015 temperature also marks the largest margin by which an annual temperature record has been broken,” NOAA researchers observed. Hot air holds more moisture. Warm oceans give rise to more powerful storms. This is basic science. Weather events are complicated by the interplay of many factors, but when you load up storms with more moisture and hot air it should come as no surprise when all hell breaks loose. Just because direct causality is hard to establish doesn’t mean that fundamental climate conditions don’t play a significant role in powerful storms.

What’s the moral of our story here? It was kind of nice, in some respects, living through a winter that felt like spring most days. But deep down, you gotta know that this sort of thing isn’t really very healthy. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature. By the same token, it would be enormously helpful if we could set aside wearisome political controversies over climate change and take action to slow mankind’s contributions to a warming planet. Even if the scientists get some stuff wrong (as they do), the simple idea of mitigating risk ought to be enough to convince us to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. (The ever-improving economics of renewable energy should make it fairly easy on the pocketbook, too.) Scientists may be wrong, and they may be right — and if the latter is the case, what then?

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do during summertime was sit out on the front porch and enjoy the nighttime lightning-and-thunder show as storms blew over. I’ve always had a fondness for slightly unruly weather, within reasonable bounds, of course. Today, flooding and windstorms and the rest of our increasingly weird weather only occasionally shatter norms of precedent, to become something we haven’t seen before. But such events are occurring more and more .To witness floodwaters rising rapidly in every direction, higher and faster than anyone ever expected, is a sickening feeling. Imagine that becoming a metaphor for our climate in general. If you could stop it from happening, wouldn’t you?





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