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Vermont Public’s weekly dose of all things environment.

Out There: Why the flooding was so bad

This is the web version of our email newsletter, Out There! Sign up to get our weekly dose of all things environment — from creatures you might encounter on your next stroll, to a critical look at the state's energy transition, plus ways to take part in community science and a roundup of local outdoor events.

It’s Thursday, July 20. Sorry we didn’t make it into your inbox last week. Today, we’re devoting the full newsletter to what's behind the rise in extreme rainfall and flooding in New England to help make sense of the catastrophic flooding Vermont just experienced. We’ll also share resources for how to get help and give help to impacted communities in the coming weeks and months.

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Vermont Public's biweekly dose of all things environment.


Warmer, stickier air means more rain

 A moving image showing a map of Vermont with colors moving from blue to green to red to indicate rainfall.
National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Across Vermont, two months worth of rain fell in under 48 hours last week. Towns like Plymouth and Mount Holly got over 8 inches of rainfall during that time, and water levels in some rivers reached about 20 feet above normal, according to NOAA.

Vermont’s mountainous topography – with ranges that run north to south – has always made the state prone to flooding. But climate change is making rainfall more extreme, and our history of river management hasn’t helped. Last week, “we had practically every way that you could have rainfall getting generated, all taking place and sort of sitting over us,” described Vermont’s state climatologist. Here’s why:

  • 🌧️ More rain: The state is getting nearly 6 inches more precipitation every year, on average, than it did before the 1960s and the largest increases in rain and snowfall are happening in the most mountainous parts of the state. 

    • Before the rainstorm last week, much of the state had already seen over 4 inches of rain since the end of June – up to three times more rain than we might expect during that time. 
    • Earlier this summer, a lot of Vermont was in a long-term drought. All of this is in keeping with what’s projected under climate change – extreme precipitation couldincrease by more than 40% in the coming decades, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. These events are already more intense than they were in the past.
  • 🌡️ It’s more humid: As air temperatures rise, the atmosphere can absorb more moisture (it’s physics), and there’s more evaporation happening. When moist, warm air hits mountainous terrain, that air is forced up, where it encounters cooler air, and that moisture will fall out as rain
  • 🌊 Warmer oceans: A lot of the air that wafted over Vermont last week came from the Atlantic Ocean, parts of which are having one of the warmest years on record. As oceans warm, they evaporate more, which means more moisture goes back into the air, fueling heavier rainfall. 
  • 🌬️ A funky jet stream— A band of fast-moving air high in the atmosphere, moves from west to east across the Northern Hemisphere. It’s called thepolar jet stream. As the climate changes, it’s possible the path of this jet stream is getting wavier, causing weather like rain or heat waves to get stuck or move more slowly. In this case, a bend in the jet stream caused the air high above Vermont tosit in place, so the rainstorms got stuck here. 
  • 🏞️ Straighter, deeper, faster streams: About half of Vermont’s streams were straightened in the last few hundred years, while many more were impacted by deforestation, ditching, damming and berming. Those changes prevent water from being able to spill out during a typical rain storm. Instead, the stream channel will cut down into the bedrock, so it gets deeper. Banks will cave in, so streams gets wider. All of this makes streams more powerful and destructive during a big rain event.

In your backyard

An illustration of a mudpuppy, a brown salamander (a fish-and-lizard-like animal), swimming in water.
Reed Nye
Vermont Public
Mudpuppies are sensitive to pollutants, so water quality impacts from flooding last week is bad news for them. In warm or oxygen-poor water, their gills get bigger and more brightly colored than in water with plenty of oxygen. One safety note, with fast-flowing, unpredictable streams and rivers around the state, now is NOT the time to go looking for these creatures.

How to help

🧹 Give time. Sign up to volunteer through the state. Volunteers will be given specific instructions about where and when they can participate.

💸 Give money.

🩸 Give blood. The Red Cross has been trying to prevent a summer blood shortage, and they expect Vermont's floods will leave them short some 500 pints of blood. If you're able to give blood, you can sign up here.

And if you were impacted by the flooding, our colleagues have assembled a ton of resources with everything from applying for federal financial assistance to what to do if your home garden flooded.

Before you go

Water covers a paved road
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Union Street in Brandon is closed due to flood water on Sunday, July 16.

Thinking about how climate change fuels devastating flooding is a big downer, but it’s important to remember we’re not doomed. Every scientist we spoke with about extreme rain and climate change in the last two weeks said there’s still time for the world to cut global emissions and lessen the impacts of climate change.

Arecent study from Dartmouth College found that New England in particular would benefit A LOT from even a moderate reduction in global emissions. Researchers found that if the world does nothing to reduce emissions, the region could see more than 50% more extreme rain events by the end of the century. Cutting global emissions even a moderate amount though, could reduce that by about half, said lead author Jonathan Winter.

“So it very much does matter what we do now, in terms of what extreme precipitation we see in the future."

Enter your email to sign up for Out There
Vermont Public's biweekly dose of all things environment.


Thanks for reading! If you have ideas for events we should feature, critters, fungi or plants you want to learn more about, or other feedback, we'd love to hear from you! Just email us.

Credits: This week’s edition was put together by Lexi Krupp, Abagael Giles, Joia Putnoi, April McCullum and edited by Brittany Patterson, with lots of help from the Vermont Public team, including graphics by Laura Nakasaka.

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