A “hard rain” that could fall on all of us

June 28, 2016
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

He’s written a lot of great songs in the last half-century or so, but one of the very best Bob Dylan tunes is “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” a ballad that Dylan penned in response to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis but, as with any timeless art, continues to have resonance in our time and in other contexts.

It certainly applies to parts of West Virginia that have been devastated by flooding in the last week. Starting with a succession of storms last Thursday that brought one-quarter of West Virginia’s typical annual rainfall in a single day, it left 23 people dead, 15 of those fatalities occurring in Greenbrier County, where the historic Greenbrier resort is located. Thousands of people were forced to evacuate, and thousands of businesses and homes were destroyed.

As much as seven inches of rain poured down on Greenbrier County in three hours, and the National Weather Service has pegged the deluge as “historic,” “extremely rare” and an event that would only happen once every thousand years. Because of its topography, the southern part of the Mountain State was uniquely situated to experience flooding – water ran off the mountains and hills and into the valleys. Kevin Law, the state’s climatologist, told USA Today that “the valleys are the easiest places to build, so nearly all the roads and many houses are in these vulnerable areas. Eight inches of rainfall may not be that deadly in coastal and flat areas; However, in mountainous areas, eight inches of rain can be very deadly and devastating.”

Though the flash floods in West Virginia can be considered an act of God, one also has to wonder if human beings contributed to the calamity, and whether scenes like these will become more common due to the contining shifts in our weather thanks to global climate change.

According to the National Climate Assessment, extreme precipitation in the West Virginia region has increased by 71 percent since 1958. Other studies have underscored how climate change could increase the intensity of droughts, heavy rain and heat waves. Scientists have emphasized that the effects of climate change are not something that will happen in the far-off future, after we are all long gone – they are happening in the here and now, with potentially deadly outcomes, as we have seen in West Virginia and wildfire-ravaged California, along with India, which saw temperatures go as high as 123 degrees Fahrenheit in May, and in shrinking Arctic sea ice.

Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, told The Guardian newspaper, “The impacts of human-caused climate change are no longer subtle – they are playing out, in real time, before us. They serve as a constant reminder now of how critical it is that we engage in the actions necessary to avert ever-more dangerous and potentially irreversible warming of the planet.”

So, yes, we should feel sympathy for the victims of the flooding in West Virginia. But we should also be aware that what has happened there could be a frightening harbinger of things to come.

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