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Climate Change and Extreme Rainfall with Flooding in the Southern U.S.

Henry Auer's picture
Global Warming Blog

Author and Publisher, Global Warming Blog

  • Member since 2018
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  • Sep 8, 2017

Two extreme rainfall events with catastrophic flooding occurred in the U. S. recently.  The first was in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, area in August 2016, and the second is ongoing at this writing in August 2017 in southeastern Texas including Houston.

Attribution of extreme events to global warming has become more reliable as a result of increased capabilities built into the statistical procedures employed in such analyses.

Global warming likely contributed about 20% to the rainfall experienced in the Baton Rouge flooding event of 2016. 

Global warming is now recognized to be due largely to emissions of greenhouse gases by humans.  It is projected to grow worse in coming decades if stringent efforts are not made to reduce these emissions.  In that case it is foreseen that extreme weather events may become more frequent and more severe.

Introduction.  The southern United States has suffered two episodes of unprecedented rainfall and flooding in the past year.  In August 2016 Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the surrounding area experienced torrential rain and rapid, extreme flooding beginning August 11 and extending beyond August 16.  Major damage and human dislocations resulted from this catastrophe.

In 2017 Hurricane Harvey left the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall near Corpus Christi, Texas on August 25.  Contrary to the paths of many hurricanes, Harvey degenerated into a tropical depression and stalled over southern Texas for days; as of this writing on August 29 it has drifted slowly to the northeast, hovering over Houston, Texas.  At various locations it has drenched the land with 20-40 inches (50-100 cm) of rain over this time (accessed August 29, 2017), causing extreme flooding, especially in the Houston area.  It is projected to continue northeastward toward Louisiana in the next day or more.

Flooding in Baton Rouge arose as an unusual weather pattern leading to excessive rainy conditions slowed considerably over the region for several days .  In the most severe case rain fell at a rate of 2–3 inches (5.1–7.6 cm) per hour, and produced a total of 24 inches (61 cm) of rainfall, with a maximum recorded as 31.4 inches (79.7 cm) in Watson, Louisiana.  The National Weather Service estimated the likelihood of such an event as 0.1%.  Flooding of eight rivers in the area led to major disruptions and damage, including damage to 146,000 homes, with tens of thousands of people relocated to emergency shelters.  About 265,000 children, or one-third of Louisiana’s school pupils, were prevented from attending school.  The economic impact has been estimated at between $10-$15 billion.

Rainfall and flooding in southern Texas is continuing at the time of this writing, and is expected to migrate east toward Louisiana in the coming days.  The amount of rainfall to date is extremely high; an interactive display of rainfall rates and total accumulated rainfall at various locations is available online (based on the National Weather Service; accessed August 29, 2017).  As of this writing, the total for the Corpus Christi area is 20 inches (50 cm), with a maximum rate of almost 3 inches per hour (7.5 cm per hour) on August 26.  The Houston area is far more seriously affected, according to the interactive map.  One location northeast of Houston shows a total rainfall to date of 52 inches (130 cm) with a maximum rate of about 10 inches per hour (25 cm per hour). (The normal annual rainfall in Houston  is 49.8 inches (126 cm).  Images and videos of the flooding, its damage and human tragedy can be seen currently on news sources and the internet.  The economic impacts will certainly be extremely high.

Reports such as the Fourth National Climate Assessment draft (NCA) foresee worsening catastrophes such as those described here.   The draft NCA was prepared by climate scientists and related specialists drawn from thirteen U. S. government departments and agencies, as well as a large number of scientists in nongovernmental research facilities. They critically assessed peer-reviewed research and similar public sources, including primary datasets and widely-recognized climate modeling frameworks.  These standards assure that the findings of the report are objectively accurate, avoiding bias toward any unsubstantiated point of view.  By law the NCA cannot make any policy recommendations.

Among its conclusions, the NCA finds it is “extremely likely” that activities by humans have been the “dominant” cause of the warming observed since the middle of the 20thcentury.  It states with “very high confidence” that no alternatives, such as cyclical changes in solar energy reaching the Earth or variations in natural planetary factors, can explain the observed climate changes.

The NCA projects with “high confidence” that heavy precipitation events will continue increasing over the 21st century.  As noted, these trends are attributed to human activity.  They will likely worsen considerably as the climate warms.

Global warming contributes to the severity of extreme weather events.  Of the excess heat retained by the earth, i.e., the land, air and sea, as a result of man-made global warming, 90% enters the waters of the ocean.  The U. S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration finds that the sea surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico in the early months of 2017 exceeded the 35-year average for 1981-2016 by about 0.75°C (1.3°F), and about equaled the record for that period.  Since the amount of water vapor that air can hold increases by about 7% per °C (about 4% per °F), the warmer Gulf surface temperature increased the water vapor capacity of the air by about 5% compared to earlier years.

Since the complete weather system defined as hurricane/depression Harvey is spending a large fraction of its time over the Gulf, it recharges its moisture content continuously, indefinitely.  Over land, much of this added moisture in the system falls as additional amounts of rain, compared to earlier years.  Similar considerations hold for the Baton Rouge extreme event of 2016.  The physical damage and human harm inflicted by such calamities is costly.  Ultimately much of the burden becomes added expenditures imposed as taxes on the population at large.


Attribution of specific events to the general finding that global temperatures are rising has become far more reliable in recent years.  The procedures use advanced statistical measures to assess whether the extent by which the extreme event exceeds historical records has explanations other than global warming.  If not, a proportion of the overall extreme event may be attributed to the excess effect provided by global warming.

Since the Houston extreme rainfall and flooding event is still in progress, it is too early to attempt attribution of its causes.  The Baton Rouge event, however, has been assessed by attribution methods.  Wang and coworkers identified atmospheric weather patterns that promoted the catastrophic rainfall of this episode.  Regional model simulations lead to an estimate that global warming since 1985 likely increased the observed rainfall by 20%.

Authoritative analyses of the earth’s climate show that the warming experienced to date is primarily due to man-made additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This enhances retention of heat within the earth system rather than radiating excess heat to space.  Continued human activity that produces more greenhouse gases in the future is expected to worsen this effect, according to climate models, leading to excessive warming of the planet’s air, land and oceans.  In such a case, one consequence is expected to be more severe, and more frequent, extreme weather events such as the Baton Rouge intense rain and flooding, and hurricane/tropical depression Harvey currently wreaking havoc in Texas and Louisiana.

Stringent reductions in further emissions of greenhouse gases are called for in order to lessen the impact of future extreme weather events.

Photo Credit: Jessica Crabtree via Flickr

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