Climate Change Places Kentucky Population Among Nation’s Most At-Risk

A recent report named the state of Kentucky among the nation’s most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Particularly at risk are eastern parts of the state, already some of the poorest counties in the US.

The US Climate Vulnerability Index was released in October 2023. Compiled by the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University, the Index offers a comprehensive vision of the threats that climate change brings to communities across the country. Large swathes of Eastern Kentucky rank well above the 90th percentile of counties most at risk.

The results come as no surprise to experts within the state. The last few years have seen an increased drought and flood cycle. In the summer of 2022, Kentucky’s Governor Beshear declared a state of emergency in 13 eastern counties. Massive thunderstorms caused some creeks to rise to 35 feet, washing away houses, schools, and roads. Forty people died because of the deluge, the highest number of flood-related deaths for any state that year.

According to Kenneth Kunkel of the National Climate Assessment, heavy rainfall events in eastern Kentucky have increased by 20 percent since the beginning of the 20th century.

The geography of Eastern Kentucky makes it especially susceptible to flash flooding and its disastrous effects. Decades of strip mining have left vast tracts of land unprotected by vegetation. During bouts of heavy rainfall, these hillsides turn send chutes of water and mud pouring into the valleys below, engulfing everything in their path. Warming temperatures worsen the situation by hardening the ground so that the waters have nowhere to go.

The impact of the floods throughout Eastern Kentucky is multilayered. Counties already struggling with poverty and lack of basic infrastructure are further hit by loss of housing and other property. Agricultural land and food production also suffer. Furthermore, the remoteness of some Appalachian regions can cause delays in aid reaching those who need it most. Medical care is another problem. The areas most affected by floods are also those with high levels of chronic disease and disability, as well as less access to healthcare facilities. An increase in the frequency of these natural disasters results in a greater likelihood of waterborne diseases caused by insects and contamination. A 2001 study found that 51 percent of all waterborne disease outbreaks in the US were the result of extreme rainfall events. The effects of such disease outbreaks can last for months, harming both humans and livestock.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health are working with community agencies throughout Eastern Kentucky to help put plans in place for the next time disaster happens. According to Kunkel, it is only a matter of time.