Historic Arkansas River Flooding

Weather Watch with Ed Buckner

The late spring storms across northeast Oklahoma and northwest Arkansas are not that uncommon, but the intensity and frequency of these storms this year caused the Arkansas River to rise to historic levels in some places.

As June began, it was all about the river. After 15 to 20 inches of rain in May across northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas, and large releases of water from nearby lakes, the Arkansas river rose to unprecedented levels. The river crested more than two feet above previous high marks at Van Buren, Toad Suck and Pendleton. Homes, roads, businesses and farmland were all affected. The flooding also caused one fatality when a 64-year-old man drove around a barricade on highway 22 near Barling (Sebastian County).

As if the river flooding wasn’t enough, June continued to bring strong to severe storms and additional flooding and tree and home damage. Power outages were common across the state. From June 3rd through June 8th, Fort Smith received 4.80 inches of rain, and Fayetteville 3.62 inches. June is usually the time when Mother Nature slows things down a bit and it’s pretty much all heat, but this year has been unusual to say the least. So why has it been so turbulent lately?

Climate Central is an independent organization of scientists and journalists who research and report the facts about the changing climate and its impact on the public. In a recent report from Climate Central, the research showed that climate change is making the wettest days wetter, which heightens flood risks.

The climate of the earth has indeed warmed over the past 100 years and at a record pace. This warming can intensify heavy downpours. More than 70% of the planet’s surface is water, and as the earth warms, more water evaporates from oceans, lakes and soils. Every 1 degree rise also allows the atmosphere to hold 4% more water vapor. So, when the weather pattern gets stormy, there is more moisture available for stronger downpours, increasing the risk and severity of flooding.

Flooding obviously happens on some of the rainiest days of the year; in June we had 3 days in LR of around 1.50 inches of rain or more. Much more rain fell across parts of Western Arkansas, all draining into the Arkansas River basin. The added warmth in our atmosphere has increased precipitation by an inch or more in 32 of the 244 cities surveyed with Houston, Texas leading the list with an additional 2.78 inches of rain for the rainiest days of 2018. The top four cities with increased heavy rainfall are all located in the southeast part of the United States.

2018 was the fourth wettest year ever recorded in Little Rock and this year we continue that trend. As of this writing, Little Rock is almost 12 inches above normal for the year.

So, what is the solution? According to the United States Climate Science Special Report, curbing humanity’s greenhouse emissions in line with pledges from the Paris Agreement, the increase in the number of extreme downpours could be cut in half–a big difference that would be critical.