The Present Effects of Climate Change in West Virginia

We regularly hear dire predictions of what the future will hold because of our warming climate. But the fact that most of the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt decades from now makes it hard for people to take this problem seriously. Politically complex and expensive policy changes are more difficult to make because of this. So what effects of climate change are being felt now? It turns out there are several right under our noses.

First the good news. West Virginia is in a favorable location to avoid the absolute worst effects of climate change now and in the future. We have no coastline so rising sea levels will not affect us. Further, increases in the number and intensity of hurricanes might affect us indirectly in the form of rainfall, but we will be spared the heavy wind and storm surge damage felt in coastal areas.

Average temperatures in West Virginia have risen .6 to 1 degree F in the last century. This is somewhat less than in most of the United States. “West Virginia’s climate has become milder with warmer winters, cooler summers and generally more humid conditions year-round,” says Evan Kutta, the climate sciences program manager for West Virginia University’s Institute of Water Security and Science.

But temperatures have risen at a faster rate recently. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that the last five years have been the hottest on record nationwide, and predicts with 99% certainty that most of the years in the next decade will rank among the ten warmest.

The practical effect of warmer atmospheric temperatures is warmer ground temperatures. This leads to increased evaporation of surface and ground water. For every 1 degree C the globe warms, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere increases by about 5 percent. This returns to the ground in the form of heavier rainfall. Rainfall in the Eastern Panhandle has increased between 10% and 20% from 1900 to the present.

And heavier rainfall with the flooding it causes are the most significant present effects of climate change in West Virginia. West Virginia is prone to flooding to begin with based on its terrain and development patterns. Steep mountain hillsides and narrow valleys permit heavy rainfall frequently to convert into catastrophic flash flooding. Building in the narrow valleys increases runoff during these periods.

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, there have been 2,302 flood events in West Virginia between January 1993 and July 2017, resulting in an estimated $1.8 billion in property damages and 103 deaths. The NCEI also reports that in the period 2005 to 2014 the state received 16 FEMA disaster declarations, 12 of which were related to severe storms and flooding events.

In 2016 West Virginia experienced what has been described as a “once-in-a-millennium” flood. What a coincidence that we are living just at the right time in that thousand years to experience the event! Eight to ten inches of rain fell in a period of 12 hours causing 23 deaths in West Virginia and nearby Virginia counties. Forty-four roads were closed. The Elk River rose to an all-time high of 33.37 ft.

Some might argue that this flood was a one-off event not part of a statistically significant trend.  But flooding events seem to be happening with increasing frequency. Looking at the emergency declarations issued by the Governor over the last several years, there is a troubling pattern. In June 2019 flash flooding in West Virginia resulted in 24 deaths and a federal disaster was declared in 44 counties. Then in February 2020 and June 2020 there were separate states of emergency declared by Governor Justice resulting from flooding.

Flooding is not the only climate-related problem we now have. There are also human health effects from climate change presently being felt in West Virginia and elsewhere. There is such a close link between warming temperatures and the spread of disease-bearing ticks that in 2014 the EPA added Lyme disease as a new indicator to track and measure the impact of climate change.

West Virginia has seen an increase in human Lyme disease cases during the past few years. As of July 24, 2019, there were 288 Lyme disease cases in West Virginia. Compared to the same time in 2015, there were only 126 reported cases. An endemic disease is one that is constantly present at a baseline level in a geographic area without external inputs. As of 2016, there were eleven counties in West Virginia considered endemic for Lyme disease: Berkeley, Hampshire, Hancock, Jefferson, Kanawha, Marshall, Mineral, Morgan, Roane, Wetzel, and Wood.

As I see it, the problem with the approach by the environmental movement to the climate change debate has two components. First we often want to fix blame for climate change on industries whose help we will need to fix the problem. Are we surprised that we get strong opposition? Blame is not a strategy – a call to action is. Second, we tend to over-hype the disastrous future effects of climate change when it is hard for people to accept and make sacrifices to avoid future problems.

I am no expert in these matters. But in my opinion greater success in the fight against climate change can be made by treating it as a process with present effects that people can get their arms around. Americans are pretty good at coming together to deal with a national problem when it is clear we have one. In West Virginia there are present effects of climate change that everyone can recognize, and if we use a poised explanation of how these present effects will get far worse unless we start doing something — well then we have a winning strategy.