A month after the Nashville flood, family members and others called off the search for the final flood victim, a young man who had a tattoo of Jesus on his back. He was one of 30 Tennesseans killed when the rainstorm did not stop for two days and the water ran high and swift.
Nashville’s May 1-2 downpour in places “had rainfall measurements exceeding the maximum observed rainfall associated with Hurricane Katrina landfall,” reported the National Weather Service.
A neighborhood adjacent to my home had almost 18 inches. An estimated 9,000 homes were damaged and estimated recovery costs run over $1.5 billion.
The Nashville downpour was not an isolated event, however.
The next month, Arkansas experienced an 8-inch downpour on June 10, killing 20 campers.
Four days later, Oklahoma City had “record-busting rainfall” with an estimated 10 inches in some places in only a few hours. Firefighters had “more than 60 swift-water rescues,” reported Associated Press. One boat even sank, causing firefighters to cling to treetops and to wait for rescue.
But the Arkansas and Oklahoma downpours were not isolated events.
In late June, a county in Guangdong, China, had 24 inches of rain in 6 hours. AFP news reported that 235 Chinese were killed, 109 were missing and more than 3 million people had to be evacuated.
What accounts for these horrific, destructive downpours?
“There is a systemic influence on all of these weather events nowadays because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago,” said Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, in an interview with Joseph Romm, who writes the influential blog ClimateProgress.org.
Romm holds a doctorate in physics from MIT. Time magazine named ClimateProgress.org as one of the top 25 “Best Blogs of 2010.”
Trenberth told Romm that the humidity in the air had increased: “It’s about a 4 percent extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms.”
He continued, “[I]t’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
When Romm asked Trenberth what kind of storms we should expect in future decades, Trenberth answered that “they are apt to be a doozie.”
“For a one degree Fahrenheit increase in air temperature the water holding capacity goes up by 4 percent. Pretty close to 4 percent. And so if the sea temperatures go up by one degree, as they have, then the air temperatures probably go up a little bit more than that in fact. And so when you start talking about three, four, five degrees, then you’re talking about 20 percent increases in the water vapor in the atmosphere,” said Trenberth.
“When it rains it pours, so to speak. So you can really get deluges, and there are times when you have longer dry spells in between so there’s the risk of drought if you happen to miss these storms. And they are very much of a hit and miss nature. But then when you do get hit by them suddenly you’ve got a deluge,” he said.
Romm is careful about connecting global warming with the record deluges. He notes that warming air holds more moisture and that global warming sets the table for intense downpours.
“Global warming means local storming. Global warming makes storms like Katrina more fierce. Record wildfire storms in the West, record dust storms in Australia, record snowstorms and rainstorms here on the East Coast. Global warming set the table for those local superstorms,” said Romm.
Romm spoke last week in Nashville at an international climate conference. He repeated the scientific understanding about global warming: It’s real.
As neither a scientist nor the son of a scientist, I see climate change. I witnessed the Nashville deluge in my neighborhood. I saw a neighborhood creek turn into a raging river. I saw neighbors moving their cars to higher ground as the floodwaters covered streets and yards. I saw fences knocked down, houses damaged and fruitless efforts to redirect water.
What I don’t see are enough Americans, especially people of faith, warming up the political atmosphere on their elected officials to take the necessary legislative steps to address the causes of climate change and to make America secure from its dependence on oil.
Disgustingly, the GOP acts like the Grand Oil Party and too many Democrats have lost their nerve.
Henry Pollack, emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan and author of “World Without Ice,” closed his presentation at the Nashville conference with a quote from Winston Churchill.
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty,” said Churchill.
Redressing the causes of climate change is difficult. For the faith community, it’s an opportunity to live out what we say we believe about being stewards of the environment.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.