Climate change is exacerbating flooding in Missouri

Hurricanes and earthquakes seem to grab more attention, but floods and droughts can be just as destructive. Missouri is no stranger to floods, but intense rainfall events that happen back-to-back throughout the state have made flooding even more common. 

Climate change has a big hand in this. Earth’s rising temperatures allows for more water from oceans, lakes and the ground to evaporate into the atmosphere. So when Missouri’s rainy season rolls around, there is more moisture available for stronger storms. This leads to an increased risk and severity of flood events that is damaging to critical infrastructure and cropland. 

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, global warming coupled with human disturbances to the land will only create a bigger risk for more destructive and costly floods as time goes on. 

Andrew Hurley, a professor of environmental and urban history at the University of Missouri St. Louis, attributes some of the cause of increased flash flooding to urban development.

“Once [the rain] hits the ground, we are dealing with highly engineered landscapes in cities, rather than natural landscapes,” Hurley said. “Engineered systems may displace water to areas where they wouldn’t go naturally.”

Flash floods and urban flooding, which are common in Missouri, are directly linked to heavy rainfall events. This means that as heavy rainfall events increase, so will flooding throughout the region, according to the National Climate Assessment

The assessment also found that in the Midwest, events with very heavy rainfall increased by 37% from 1958 to 2012. It states that “heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades, with the largest increases in the Midwest and Northeast. Increases in extreme precipitation are projected for all U.S. regions.”

Pat Guinan, a professor of climatology at the University of Missouri, explained that data shows that Missouri has experienced more rainfall events between two and three inches in the past few decades than compared to the long-term average.

“We are in an unprecedented wet period here in Missouri that began in the early 1980s,” he said.

The effects climate change has had on Missouri’s water-rich landscape are already evident. For example, 14 roads in Boone County were covered with rainwater Friday after the state experienced heavy rainfall. In addition, 14 highways were closed across mid-Missouri.

Flooding does not only cause closed roads though, it can cause a wide range of problems, including anything from disrupting transportation and damaging buildings, property or infrastructure, to drinking water contamination, evacuations, injuries and sometimes death. 

“We are seeing more extreme precipitation events and heavy precipitation events,” Guinan said. “Especially over the past few decades.”

Colleen Wouters earned her bachelor’s degree in science, health and environmental journalism at the Missouri Journalism School in May 2021.

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