Another major flood event in Metro Detroit: Should we blame global warming?

Yes, yes we should

Cars stuck on a flooded I-94 in Metro Detroit. (WDIV)

This was first published in the “In This Climate” Newsletter. You can sign up for it here, or by using the form at the bottom of this article.

“Basically, human impact is putting our atmosphere on steroids.”

Welcome back to the In This Climate Newsletter! I’m Ken. I launched this newsletter to bring climate change to the neighborhood level. How is climate change impacting Michigan right now -- and how will it impact Michigan in the future? What can we do about it?

We’ll spend some time looking at the issues -- and we’ll seek out solutions. We’ll talk to the experts. We’ll educate ourselves along the way. If this sounds like something you’re interested in, welcome to the climate club! If not, feel free to manage your newsletter subscriptions here.

🌧️ Another major flood! What gives?

Unless you were sleeping under a rock last weekend, you likely saw the major flooding that hit Metro Detroit, mostly in Wayne County. It was just another 500-year flood event -- but it hasn’t been 500 years. It hasn’t even been 10 years. Major freeways flooded, including I-94, which is STILL closed as of this writing on Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blamed the flooding disaster on climate change, and renewed her push for infrastructure funding. “Now we are seeing the cost of not fixing it. It would be overly simplistic to use one time dollars because this is an ongoing problem,” said Whitmer.

So what role does climate change play in events like this? I asked our resident climate expert and meteorologist Paul Gross. Here’s what he says:

After every significant weather event like the one we just experienced, I’m always asked: “Did global warming cause this?”

So let’s first get right to the question at hand: global warming did NOT cause the storm that hit us Friday into Saturday. Those types of storms have occurred in the past, and they will happen in the future.

While this might answer the particular question “did global warming cause this,” there is a better question that actually should be asked. Rather than use the word “cause,” let’s substitute it with the word “impact.”

Global warming very likely IMPACTED the storm that hit us, and the explanation is simple to explain and simple to understand. Furthermore, this is not conjecture or speculation: this is verified scientific fact.

Related: What Michigan’s future could look like without action on climate change

As the world warms (and it is verified scientific fact that the planet is warming), more ocean water evaporates into the atmosphere (and it is verified scientific fact that atmospheric humidity is increasing).

It is this atmospheric moisture that makes storms turn into precipitation. So, with more moisture available, storms can produce more precipitation. And they are (it is verified scientific fact that the top one percent of precipitation events - the most extreme of the extreme events - are increasing).

Basically, human impact is putting our atmosphere on steroids.

In the same way that a baseball player hit a lot of home runs before using steroids, and then started hitting those home runs even farther after using steroids, extreme precipitation events are producing even more precipitation than in the past.

This past Saturday morning, my friend Heather Nabozny, head groundskeeper at Comerica Park, and I were chatting about the expected weather for the upcoming doubleheader that day. She told me that she measured 6.8 inches of rain in the 24-hour period there at the ballpark. That’s an astounding number, and is something that, statistically, is expected to occur once every 500 years.

Gee, we just had another similarly extreme rain event just seven years ago, in August 2014.

So the bottom line is that global warming did not cause the big rainstorm, but very likely made it worse.

Related: Earth is warming but winters could get worse -- here’s why

Read more: Great Flood of 2014: How historic was it?

♨️ Hot reads

  • Less snow for Yellowstone: Yellowstone National Park visitors hoping to see its world-renowned geysers, wolves and bears can expect warmer temperatures and less snow as climate change alters the park’s environment, according to a report by U.S. and university researchers released Wednesday.
  • Northwest heatwave: Portland, Oregon, broke its all-time heat record on Saturday. It then broke it again on Sunday, registering a temperature of 112 degrees Fahrenheit (44 Celsius) — besting the record set a day earlier by 4 degrees. Seattle, known nationally for its mild weather and rainy days, hit 104 F (40 C) on Sunday. The National Weather Service said that was an all-time record for the city and was the first time the area recorded two consecutive triple digit days since records began being kept in 1894. What is going on? Here’s an explainer.
  • Don’t forget the animals: To save the planet, the world needs to tackle the crises of climate change and species loss together, taking measures that fix both and not just one, United Nations scientists said. More here.

🧊 Break the ice

Thanks for reading the In This Climate Newsletter! I appreciate it. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover or just want to say hello, feel free to email me!

We have plenty of other newsletters at Local 4, covering all types of topics. Sign up for others here. Talk soon! - Ken Haddad (Email | Twitter)

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About the Authors:

Ken Haddad is the digital content manager for WDIV / He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter.

Local 4 meteorologist Paul Gross was born in Detroit and has spent his entire life and career right here in southeast Michigan. Paul has researched, written and produced eight half-hour documentaries for WDIV, as well as many science, historical and environmental stories.