Photo: Residents use a boat to navigate through flood waters in Ascension Parish, La., on Aug. 15, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman The "1,000-year rain" that inundated Louisiana late last week dumped roughly 2 feet of water on some parts of the state, and it's still causing serious flooding (from the National Weather Service's River Forecast Center, here's a map of the affected spots).
Nola.com reports that the deluge was triggered by a low-pressure system that got its start off the Florida coast back on Aug. 5. Initially, the National Hurricane Center warned that it might move into the Gulf of Mexico and form a tropical depression, which can be the first stage of the process that creates a hurricane. Instead, though, it tracked along the northern Gulf coast and never developed key characteristics of a tropical cyclone, such as a central core that was warmer than the outer edges and had surface winds swirling around it.
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Instead, as Scientific American notes, the storm became, for all practical purposes, a hurricane minus the wind.
But we know what you're really wondering about. Was this horrific storm caused by climate change?
It's difficult to give a definitive answer to that question, because scientists generally have been reluctant to point to global warming as the cause of any specific weather event.
That said, the Louisiana storm certainly would fit into the larger, long-term pattern described in scientists' climate models, which have predicted that a warming planet will experience more intense storms. This 2007 NASA climate simulation, for example, found that on an Earth with higher atmospheric carbon dioxide and a warmer temperature, violent thunderstorms and tornadoes would become increasingly common.
Additionally, there's evidence that warming already may be intensifying storms. Over the past quarter century, the amount of precipitation in big downpours -- that is, ones that are in the top percentile of daily events -- has increased in most parts of the United States. In the Northeast, the rainfall in such big storms has increased by an astonishing 71 percent, and the Midwest (37 percent) and the Southeast (27 percent) also have been getting seriously soaked. (For more info, here's a recent U.S. government report with all the details, and citations to specific studies.)
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A review of research published earlier this year by the National Academy of Sciences found that scientists now can link certain specific weather events to climate change with a higher degree of confidence than in the past, based on the capabilities of climate models, the historical weather record and understanding of the physical mechanisms that lead to extremes. But the link is strongest for events involving temperature, such as heat waves or winter cold snaps. For rainfall, the report's authors concluded that there was only a "medium" degree of confidence that a specific downpour could be linked to global warming.
That's why scientists continue to couch their explanations in caveats.
"Louisiana is always at risk of floods, naturally, but climate change is exacerbating that risk, weighting the dice against us," Katharine Hayhoe, a climate researcher at Texas Tech University, told the Washington Post. "How long will it be until we finally recognize that the dice are loaded?"
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