The Concerning Effects of Climate Change on Flooding
Historically, flooding has been an integral part of human society, both for its destruction and ability to irrigate crops. However, recently floods have gained a propensity to deal more harm than good. In 2022, floods in Pakistan ravaged the economy and critical infrastructure. It caused $15 billion in damage and killed over 1,700 people (“Pakistan: Flood Damages…”). If global warming continues to develop unhindered, extreme events such as this will only grow more common.
There are three main types of floods, each of which is being impacted differently by climate change. Flash floods refer to a sudden rise in water level due to excessive rainfall and often occur in normally dry areas. River floods, as can be inferred, occur when water levels over run river banks, typically due to rainfall runoff. Lastly is coastal flooding, which is caused by abnormally high tides.
It Is important to clarify that climate change and flooding frequency/intensity do not have a clear causal relationship. However, recent trends show that they are indeed correlated. Climate change doesn’t directly affect floods, but it does influence many factors that go into the start of a flood (Denchak). In general, climate change is increasing the intensity of floods, but not necessarily their frequency.
Global warming has made extreme precipitation more common, due to the fact that warmer air can hold more water vapor. The uptick in intensity makes flash floods and river floods more common and dangerous (Hersher). Ironically, flash flooding commonly occurs in areas recently stricken by wildfires. After wildfires damage the soil, it loses some of its ability to absorb water, allowing water to accumulate quicker. Wildfires have been occurring at historically high rates as the globe slowly heats up, meaning more areas are vulnerable to flash flooding (Davenport). For example, the 2022 floods in Pakistan were exacerbated by the record-breaking heat in the summer that preceded it. The dry soil was unable to absorb runoff, and a state of emergency ensued. Climate change is also causing polar ice and glaciers to melt, increasing oceans’ water levels (Denchak). This will result in more destructive coastal flooding and a sharp increase in economic losses.
In 2022, flooding around the world cost the economy billions of dollars, and millions of people were forced to evacuate their homes. In fact, out of the 10 most costly climate disasters in 2022, three were floods (“10 Most Costly…”). Intense flooding not only destroys roads and homes but also hurts the environment. In natural ecosystems, flooding can be very beneficial for the environment. It can replenish nutrients and reinvigorate entire ecosystems. However, in developed areas, flooding isn’t so beneficial. As floodwater mixes with sewage and hazardous waste, drinking water can be contaminated (Rubin). Additionally, waterborne illnesses such as cholera become much more of an issue. Wet conditions allow them to spread much quicker and infect more people.
In the end, most signs point to global warming being the major actor behind the atypically extreme destructiveness of recent floods. To appropriately alleviate flooding and a myriad of other issues, we need to start by addressing climate change. That means supporting environmental legislation and educating others on the importance of climate change. Governments can also plan infrastructure around flood risks and build more sophisticated models to better predict and prevent floods.
“10 Most Costly Climate Change-Related Disasters in 2022 Revealed.” Sky News, 30 Dec. 2022, news.sky.com/story/10-most-costly-climate-change-related-disasters-in-2022-revealed-12774943.
Davenport, Frances. “Climate Change Is Making Flooding Worse: 3 Reasons the World Is Seeing More Record-Breaking Deluges and Flash Floods.” The Conversation, 5 July 2022, theconversation.com/climate-change-is-making-flooding-worse-3-reasons-the-world-is-seeing-more-record-breaking-deluges-and-flash-floods-185364.
Denchak, Melissa. “Flooding and Climate Change: Everything You Need to Know.” NRDC, 10 Apr. 2019, www.nrdc.org/stories/flooding-and-climate-change-everything-you-need-know.
Hersher, Rebecca. “How Climate Change Drives Inland Floods.” NPR, 3 Aug. 2022, www.npr.org/2022/08/03/1115384628/how-climate-change-drives-inland-floods.
“Pakistan: Flood Damages and Economic Losses over USD 30 Billion and Reconstruction Needs over USD 16 Billion – New Assessment.” World Bank, 28 Oct. 2022, www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/10/28/pakistan-flood-damages-and-economic-losses-over-usd-30-billion-and-reconstruction-needs-over-usd-16-billion-new-assessme.
Rubin, Ken. “Environmental Effects of Floods.” Ask An Earth Scientist, www.soest.hawaii.edu/GG/ASK/floods.html. Accessed 21 May 2023.