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Climate change hits home as Alabama experiences more rain, more flooding

Dr. Jim McClintock
  • September 13, 2021

Alabamians are experiencing more intensive, flooding rainfall. Our insurance agents selling flood insurance know it, our meteorologists know it, our road crews and state troopers know it, as do homeowners living along our creeks and rivers.

‘And I wonder / Still, I wonder / Who’ll stop the rain?’
— John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970

Alabamians are experiencing more intensive, flooding rainfall. Our insurance agents selling flood insurance know it, our meteorologists know it, our road crews and state troopers know it, as do homeowners living along our creeks and rivers.

Jim McClintock speaking about climate change at the McWane Center.

Alabama residents of communities built on floodplains also know torrential rains have increased, as do the agencies that manage and monitor our sewage treatment plants. The financial costs of the adaptive infrastructure needed to sustain our Alabama communities in the face of these increasing flooding events are significant. We will all have to chip in to keep our heads above water.

So what is contributing to this increase in the intensity of Alabama’s rainfall over the past few decades? The recipe is simple. Greenhouse gases generated by the combustion of fossil fuels are raising the temperature of our planet. A warmed atmosphere has a greater capacity to hold more water vapor. Moisture-laden air produces downpours that are more intense.

Southerners are not experiencing more inches of rain each year, but rather, more inches of rain over shorter and shorter time periods, according an analysis of more than a century of rainfall data by climate scientist Daniel Bishop from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and his colleagues, published in 2019 in the peer-reviewed Geophysical Research Letters. They attribute this heavier rainfall to climate-warmed, moister air, combined with greater high-intensity frontal precipitation.

Therein lies the problem.

When it rains, it pours.

Flooding rains are also a growing problem for our natural environment. For example, explosive rains are causing the erosion of the banks of Alabama’s wondrous Cahaba River, one of the most biodiverse, uninterrupted stretches of riverine habitat in America. These bank sediments, along with those from neighboring construction sites, turn the river chocolate brown.

In addition to the sediments, there are a plethora of fertilizers and pesticides flushed from lawns and farms as well as sewage, sometimes raw, overflowing along the Cahaba River from treatment plants designed to handle rainfall amounts from days gone by. All of these factors challenge the survival of more than 150 species of fish and 30 species of mussels that call our Cahaba River “home.”

What can we do to protect “Alabama the Beautiful” from increasingly intense rain events? We must invest in the sort of climate-adaptive infrastructure necessary to address our changing climate.

We can create buffer zones along our rivers and their tributaries to facilitate the absorption of flooding rainwater and pollutants.

We can invest in bigger and more efficient sewer treatment plants.

In order to protect our road infrastructure, we can provide funds to enlarge and improve the drainage systems along our highways and the streets of our urban and suburban neighborhoods.

Moreover, we can avoid building future developments in flood-prone areas.

At the same time as we address our enhanced infrastructural needs, with the help of our academic and corporate institutions, and our city, state and federal governments, Alabamians can address the underlying root cause of climate warming by reducing our state’s production of greenhouse gases.

A great place to begin is to take advantage of new cost-effective renewable energies, revolutionary battery technologies — and a rapidly expanding national electric vehicle fleet that will soon include an Alabama icon: the Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck. Who can resist a pick-up truck with an electric engine that has enough torque to climb just about any Alabama red-dirt, backcountry road?

Half a century ago, singer/songwriter John Fogerty titled his prophetic song “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” Fogerty’s hit included the equally climate-centric verse: “Clouds of myst’ry pourin … confusion on the ground.”

We Alabamians cannot stop the rain. We can take action, however, to ensure that flooding rains are not with us for generations. 


Dr. Jim McClintock is the Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology in the Department of Biology.