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Damage from flash flooding in Tennessee.

A view of the damage after heavy rain and devastating floods in Waverly, Tennessee, United States on August 22, 2021. (Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Climate Chaos Fueled Death and Destruction of Tennessee Floods: Experts

"There is no place in the United States where you shouldn't be resetting your expectations about Mother Nature disrupting your life," said one expert.

Julia Conley

The extensive damage and nearly two dozen deaths caused by massive flooding in Tennessee over the weekend took some residents by surprise, but as one climate scientist said on Tuesday, such flash flooding is "exactly the type of event we expect to see with increasing frequency in a warming climate."

Dr. Gary Lackmann, a professor of atmospheric science at North Carolina State University, was among the climate experts who determined in the days after the flooding that the disaster was tied to the human-caused climate emergency and the heating of the planet.

"It's not easy to attribute a single weather event to climate change. When you start seeing these events happening more frequently, it becomes more unambiguous."
—Dr. Gary Lackmann, North Carolina State University

"It's not easy to attribute a single weather event to climate change," Lackmann told the New York Times. "When you start seeing these events happening more frequently, it becomes more unambiguous."

The flooding resulted from heavy rainfall during which 17 inches of rain fell in parts of central Tennessee in 24 hours on Saturday, including nine inches in just three hours. 

At least 21 people were killed in the flooding and 10 were still missing as of Monday, according to the Washington Post. Hundreds of homes were damaged along with crucial roads and bridges.

Scientists attribute heavier rainfall, which has become more common in the last six decades according to the National Climate Assessment, to the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, which shows that for every 1°C of added heat, the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture.

With the Earth 2°C warmer than it was in the 1800s, heavier rainstorms have become increasingly frequent while another effect of warmer air—drier soil—has made the Earth less able to absorb rain as it inundates a region. 

While many Americans associate the climate crisis with wildfires in the West and rising sea levels in coastal areas, flash flooding in landlocked parts of the country is becoming increasingly common. This past weekend's events are the second time this year the Nashville area has experienced torrential rains and flooding, which also killed four people there in March. 

"There is no place in the United States where you shouldn't be resetting your expectations about Mother Nature disrupting your life," Roy Wright, president of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety and former head of FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program, told the Post. 

According to FEMA, inland flooding has become the leading cause of death associated with tropical storms in the last 50 years. 

Tennessee's latest flooding crisis came weeks after record-shattering rainfall in Germany and Belgium fueled flooding that killed more than 220 people in July. According to a study released Monday by nearly 40 researchers and scientists at the World Weather Attribution Project, the rains that inundated Central Europe were made up to nine times more likely by the climate emergency.

The bipartisan infrastructure package that the House is expected to vote on soon would include $55 billion for improving water infrastructure including storm water and sewage systems, but climate action advocates this week said lawmakers must also pass bold legislation that would fund a rapid shift away from planet-heating fossil fuel energy and toward renewable energy sources and establish a Civilian Climate Corps to employ 1.5 million people to help communities respond to the climate crisis, among other measures.

"The people of Tennessee, and all people, deserve leaders who will work to combat these climate crises effectively by ending the use of fossil fuels," tweeted Food & Water Watch.

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