Director’s statement on eastern Kentucky flooding
Dr. William C. Haneberg
State Geologist and Director, Kentucky Geological Survey
Research Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Kentucky
August 2, 2022
As communities in eastern Kentucky are beginning to recover from last week’s unprecedented flooding, I want to express our concern for all those who have been so tragically affected. While we at the Kentucky Geological Survey are not first responders, we are deeply committed to cooperation with agencies and communities to support research-based interventions and inform mitigation plans. That kind of work is central to our mission of providing unbiased information about geologic resources, environmental issues, and natural hazards affecting Kentucky. We are here for the Commonwealth.
Over the last few days, I have spoken to reporters ranging from local media outlets like the Lexington Herald-Leader and WEKU to ABC, NBC, USA Today, BBC World News and BBC Radio, Reuters, and the China Global Television Network. The reporters consistently asked not only about the region and the unprecedented severity of the floods, but also how our legacy of coal mining and the effects of global climate change may have affected the flooding.
The rain and flooding were unprecedented in our lifetime and in the hydrological record books. Precipitation depth-duration-frequency curves published by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration tell us that the rainfall was a 1000-year event. The North Fork of the Kentucky River at Whitesburg rose to a stage of 22 feet, easily breaking the previous record of 14.7 feet. Provisional calculations using publicly available peak discharge data suggest the river stage was equivalent to a 636-year flood, with a 95% prediction interval of 376 years to 1079 years. Rounding to the nearest century, we can confidently call it a 600-year flood.
Surface mining has disturbed more than seven percent of the area of Central Appalachia. We know that landslides had developed in some mountaintop removal mine embankments in Kentucky even before the storm. The peer-reviewed research about the effects of surface mining on downstream flooding during normal rainfall events is equivocal, but last week was not normal. Even mines following the highest standards may contribute to the problem if storms exceed the conditions the mines were designed to handle. It is too soon to know whether the flooding was made worse by operating or reclaimed mines in eastern Kentucky, but it is a topic that deserves further research.
Projections based on rigorously reviewed science show that under the current emissions scenario of business as usual (RCP 8.5), we will have an increasingly warmer and wetter climate in Kentucky. We also expect the frequency and severity of extreme weather events to increase if we stay on our current emissions trajectory. It may be impossible to say that last week’s events occurred solely because of climate change, but they are consistent with our expectations. It is likely that in the coming weeks and months it will be possible to confidently say how much climate change increased their likelihood.
Climate research is complex and interdisciplinary. It requires strong partnerships. Our 2022 KGS annual seminar “Climate Change in Kentucky: A Geoscience Perspective” brought researchers in education, agriculture, and digital studies into conversation with geologists to explore the topic. KGS also partnered with UK’s Center for Clinical and Translational Studies (CCTS) at the 2022 Spring Conference and the 2022 John P. Wyatt Environment and Health Symposium, both focusing on climate and health, and is an active participant in the Kentucky Climate Consortium. You can learn more by following the links below: