Hotter, wetter and drier — this is what the climate of West Virginia could look like in the future. That’s according to new research by Nicolas Zegre, a professor at West Virginia University and director of the Mountain Hydrology Laboratory.
The peer-reviewed study, published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology, used a robust dataset and 17 climate models to map how the climate of the 11-state, 420 county Appalachia region could change by 2100. The models examined a range of different climate change scenarios based on future emissions, including scenarios in which action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions and some in which no action is taken.
In West Virginia, Zegre and co-author Rodrigo Fernandez, found temperatures could be up to 10 degrees warmer if action isn’t taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions. That would mean more frequent droughts.
The study found there are different variables that could collectively affect future climate conditions, but generally, the research found, with action taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the northern region of Appalachia is generally projected to get wetter by the end of the century
That includes areas portions of New York, central Pennsylvania, and West Virginia following the Appalachian Mountains onto eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and western North and South Carolina.
If no action is taken, the research found that a large portion of the Appalachian region is expected, on average, to become drier. A transition area is observed across central Appalachia, specifically around West Virginia. Regions that are already water limited, such as the southeastern extent of the region, including South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, are projected to become even drier.
The timing of when it rains is also expected to shift in some places, the study found. Historically, the bulk of precipitation has occurred in June when trees have their leaves out and are using water. In the future, most precipitation is projected to occur in early spring, prior when tree leaves are out.
Zegre said while it sounds paradoxical that West Virginia and other parts of the Appalachian region could become hotter, wetter and drier, it’s actually what scientists would expect as climate change intensifies the water cycle across Appalachia.
“So when we have a warming atmosphere, the atmosphere expands, so it can hold more moisture in the air,” he said.
The water cycle is the interplay between when water evaporates from land into the atmosphere, where it cools and condenses into rain or snow in clouds, and falls again to the surface as precipitation. Zegre said a warming climate will change that cycle in Appalachia.
“So the more extreme events are getting more extreme with precipitation. That leads to flooding and landslides. But critically, greater evaporation during the summer months, when society relies on water for air conditioning and electricity, [means] we're seeing exacerbation of evaporation during that time, which is leading to droughts,” he added.
He said it’s crucial that society begins preparing for these changes.
“The important point is to recognize that the water system that we rely on, and that humanity has relied on for the better part of a century is changing,” he said. “And that increased variability makes it harder to manage for the extremes, but also to provide a reliable source of water as the basis of our economy.”
For West Virginians, the coming decades are expected to be marked with more frequent and intense flooding if efforts aren’t taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions, according to Zegre.
That could have major impacts to the state’s economy.
“Floods not only disrupt day to day life for communities, but it also disrupts the economy,” he said. “It's hard to run businesses and schools and the government and the economy when we're inundated with flood water.”
Across the state’s mountainous terrain, Zegre said it’s likely the state’s wetter climate will also negatively impact infrastructure like roads, bridges and water treatment facilities.
Zegre said he hopes this research can help policymakers begin to plan for a climate change-impacted West Virginia. He said while large portions of the country are preparing for a drier future, the inverse is true in West Virginia.
“Here in the Appalachian region we are largely becoming warmer and wetter,” he said. “So besides using this information to reduce the vulnerability of people throughout West Virginia in the Appalachian region, we’re interested in using this information, and helping decision makers use this information, to reshape a future economy in West Virginia, that prioritizes water, the use of our water.
He said he and his colleagues are “very positive about the opportunities that West Virginia can embrace.”
“But in order for that to occur, climate change has to be part of our public discourse,” he added.
The study was funded in-part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.