Increase in Flooding Events Could Mean a Rain Check for Missouri’s Nature Lovers

For Missourians who take to the trail or the river every weekend, increased rainfall and flooding could not only put a damper on their outdoor adventures—it could point to a reality where climate change prevents them from doing what they love.

Some parts of Missouri reported June of 2021 as the wettest June on record in decades. The effects of increased, intense rainfall manifested as statewide flooding, power outages, damaged buildings and more. 

This past June provided Missouri with an average rainfall total of 6.06 inches, nearly 1.5 inches above the baseline average—just enough water to knock a person off their feet. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, extreme rainfall and subsequent flooding are indicators of climate change. 

A collaborative report from the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains the science behind global warming and severe weather events: “Warmer oceans increase the amount of water that evaporates into the air. When more moisture-laden air moves over land or converges into a storm system, it can produce more intense precipitation—for example, heavier rain and snow storms.”

Melanie Robinson-Smith, a Deputy Regional Director for Missouri State Parks, works day in and day out to keep Missouri’s public camping parks, hiking trails and riverways in good shape. Smith has noticed that, in recent years, the parks along the Katy Trail that she manages have been forced to adjust to more extreme rain in short bursts of time. 

“That’s the biggest change we’ve seen. We seem to have more rain events that are a lot of rain at a short period of time, (there’s) less rain spread out over a longer period of time,” Smith said. “It’s much more flash flooding issues, which impacts us in all of our parks. Any park that has a trail is going to be impacted.”

Flooding at low-points of trails and around the abutments of bridges are her biggest concern because it is extremely easy to be swept away in a current, no matter how shallow it may look to the human eye. 

Executive director of Missouri River Relief Steve Schnarr has noticed the same of Missouri’s riverways. The organization, which helps to coordinate river cleanups, schedules educational guest speaker sections and helps folks connect with Missouri’s rivers recreationally, relies on good weather to operate—and recent years have been challenging. 

“It does feel like these (rainfall and flooding) events are more common and more widespread,” Schnarr said. “And they impact the work that we do on the river, for sure, by scrambling our schedule.”

One of his favorite graphs to explain the situation describes the annual runoff from the Missouri river over the past 120 years. While there are some dips over the decades, Schnarr thinks the recent uptick is important to keep in mind. 

“Especially in the 2000s, you have this kind of giant upward swing in the large flood events,” Schnarr said. “So, you know, you can call it what you want, but it’s pretty clear that there are recurring extreme weather events that are reflected in giant flood pulses in the lower Missouri River.”

Along with increased flooding comes increased danger for those who might be out kayaking, camping or enjoying other outdoor activities. According to the State Emergency Management Agency, flooding is the deadliest severe weather hazard in Missouri and, on average, accounts for 140 deaths in the U.S. each year. Flooding can wash away tents, turn walking trails into swamps and raise river levels to treacherous levels within hours.

In order to combat the possible dangers of flooding, outdoor recreation areas across Missouri have adopted various methods of weather monitoring such as apps like RainoutLine or installing traditional storm sirens on the grounds. 

“The weather forecast is just, you know, a forecast,” Smith said. “So things can change rapidly. And this is a great way to let people who are outside know that they need to seek shelter.” 

Alerting people is a main priority, as nature can be deceiving. Both adventurers with less experience and seasoned nature lovers alike can easily be put in harm’s way when caught in sudden extreme weather. Schnarr puts it simply: the less you know, the less likely you are to recognize how little you know.

“If you don’t really have much experience paddling on rivers, and you haven’t seen what a river can do when it’s two feet higher than supposed normal, you may look at a river and be like, ‘Oh, that looks fine,’” Schnarr said. 

In order to stay safe, Schnarr and Smith both emphasize the importance of knowing what extreme weather could lead to and planning ahead. Checking trail maps, monitoring weather forecasts and communicating with professionals wherever you’re headed is the easiest way to avoid potential disaster. 

Anna Kutz is a senior at Mizzou studying multimedia journalism. She is passionate about reporting on issues related to the environment and agriculture.

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