Swept Away: Protecting Midwest Communities & Wildlife From Extreme Flooding

Extreme flooding across the Midwest in 2019 was hugely damaging to people and wildlife, and a sign of climate change.

Two false-color images taken in March 2018 (left) and March 2019 (right) illustrate the extent of flooding around Des Moines, Iowa in March 2019. (Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Last spring, heavy precipitation caused massive, long lasting flooding events that plagued the Midwest. This phenomenon proved fatal for people and wildlife alike: at least three deaths in the region were reported and the flooding disturbed wildlife during the breeding season. The economic toll was also high, with the cost of the total damage and economic loss from the spring deluge estimated to be $10.8 billion. And as spring approaches, locals are reminded that traditional ‘gray infrastructure’, such as levees, did little to protect communities. With nearly 50 levees breached along the Missouri River alone, many are calling for new solutions to these climate-driven disasters. 

Back-to-Back One-In-A-Hundred Year Floods

Increasingly, the links between extreme flooding and climate change are being substantiated, as seen in the National Wildlife Federation’s interactive Unnatural Disasters Story Map. Warm air holds more moisture, which means heavier rainfalls when conditions are ripe for precipitation. Often during heavy precipitation events rivers are pushed past flood stage and the downpour occurs too quickly for the ground to absorb the water. The consequences can be fatal, damaging to wildlife, and cost billions in damage, a fact illustrated in 2019 when the Midwest experienced its wettest year since record keeping began in 1895.

Iowa experienced the full force of this unusually intense flooding, and suffered, by an early estimate, $1.6 billion in damages. Climate models predict that the state could experience warming of up to 5.3°F by midcentury. And, for every 1.8°F of warming, saturated air holds seven percent more water vapor. Concurrent with rising temperatures across the entire Midwest, the heaviest one percent of rainfall events now drop 42 percent more rain on the region, compared to 60 years ago. 

Improving Resilience for Farms, Homes, and Habitat

Impacts of last year’s flooding were widespread in Iowa, and especially punishing for farmers, who lost hundreds of millions of dollars from damaged crop yields and machinery, drowned livestock, and more. 

Wildlife suffered as well. Prairie birds, like northern bobwhite quails, are ground-nesters. Heavy rain and flooding can wash away eggs and young chicks during the nesting season. Even if a nest survives, rising waters may force a mother to flee the site and abandon the eggs. Deer are also vulnerable. Flooding can push fawns out of habitat that is normally safe, and force them closer to dangerous roads and exposed areas.

Northern Bobwhite Quail. Source: Steve Maslowski/USFWS

Homeowners also faced impacts at the hand of the deluge. Nearly 24,000 Iowa homes experienced at least minor damage from the flooding, with another 1,200 homes severely damaged or completely destroyed.

Homes caught in the flooding in March, 2019. Source: Iowa DOT

“I grew up in Iowa and I’m raising my kids here. It concerns me that in just the first nine months of 2018, Iowa racked up 23 governor-issued disaster proclamations, compared to six disaster proclamations in all of 2017,” said Des Moines City Councilor Josh Mandelbaum. “If we don’t begin to address climate change now, our children and grandchildren will pay the price.” 

The Center for Rural Affairs (CRFA), a leading force of rural advocates for climate resilience, sustainable farming, and more, is behind a push for nature-based solutions in Iowa. Kayla Bergman, a Policy Associate with CRFA, said “Investing in climate-smart practices, like floodplain restoration, can mitigate the costs of natural disasters for Iowans in a changing climate. And, these techniques come with the added bonus of co-benefits such as carbon sequestration, improved water quality, and increased wildlife habitat, which traditional ‘gray infrastructure’ does not.”

Taking Climate Action: From Des Moines to Washington

While building resilience through natural solutions helps reduce risk, addressing the climate crisis head-on is imperative. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global CO2 emissions need to be cut to nearly half the current level by 2030 and to net-zero emissions (after accounting for carbon sinks) by 2050 at the latest to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. Investments in clean energy, energy storage, energy efficiency and innovation in electric vehicles, and carbon removal technology are key to reducing carbon emissions and meeting these goals.

All members of Congress should support tax credit extensions for zero-carbon energy and transportation, and support other climate-smart strategies, like investments in natural solutions that help prevent the worst impacts of climate change while protecting people, wildlife, and infrastructure from unavoidable impacts.

To get involved and make your voice heard, contact your senators and representative and urge them to support tax credit extensions and other climate-smart solutions.

Take Action!

Learn more about how natural disasters are exacerbated by climate change in your state here. This blog is a part of a series on climate impacts and climate-exacerbated natural disasters. More blogs in the series: