Jonathan Logan, Science and Environment Editor
The Fourth of July 1969. A line of thunderstorms sporadically appear over Lake Erie in the late afternoon before coalescing and shooting toward Wayne County. The fast-moving system is characterized by straight-line wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour and torrential rainfall. Meteorologists call these types of thunderstorms “derechos.” A derecho is most commonly associated with the Great Plains, where these atmospheric events often produce tornadoes. However, derechos can form anywhere in the contiguous United States, bringing destruction similar to a tornadic event.
In the 18 hours following the initial raindrops, Wooster became inundated with 10 inches of rainfall. South, East and West of Wooster, the Killbuck, Little Killbuck and Apple Creek form a network of usually calm waterways. However, in the wee hours of July 5, each of these creeks breached their banks and flooded large swaths of residential and commercial land south of the city.
Such was the ferocity of the flash flooding that ensued, people were swept to their deaths by whirlpools generated by overwhelmed street culverts. The Akron Beacon Journal reported that a family of four perished in the flood waters of the Killbuck as it spilled down South and North Bauer Street, just east of where present-day Coccia House sits. Police officers were evacuating families on Apple Creek when their boat capsized and, as per news reports, the currents “tore away their life jackets.”
All in all, the derechos of July 4, 1969 caused an 2022 equivalent of $700 million in damage to property across 14 Ohio counties and claimed the lives of 41 people. Then-Governor James Allen Rhodes called the event the worst in Ohio’s history in terms of lives lost and property damage. Groups such as the Coast Guard were deployed in the recovery process along with millions in emergency funding for the affected counties.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climatologists predict that Ohio and the surrounding region will become much wetter through the year 2100 – 10 to 15 percent more precipitation will fall over a given annual period. There is already evidence for this: since 1901, annual precipitation has increased by almost 12 inches from 32 inches to 44 inches. Most concerning, though, when looking through the lens of 1969 are the increasing number of “two-inch extreme precipitation events” since the mid-1990s. Similar to the derechos that caused the 1969 flash flooding, these extreme events bring unusually large amounts of rain, and they are increasing in number. In the past 26 years, an official NOAA report notes that the number of days in which weather stations report extreme events has increased from the typical one day to just above. Some recent years see as much as two days worth of extreme events.
Additionally, Ohio is projected to see warming of near-surface temperatures by as much as 15 degrees Celsius in extreme cases, five to seven degrees Celsius in moderate cases and two to three degrees Celsius under low-emission circumstances by 2100. Like much of the Midwest, Ohio is warming primarily in the winter and spring months, widening not only the time period in which devastating storm events can occur, but also the time period in which crops can be grown. Agriculture is a central part of the economy and, assuming increased levels of rainfall, it may, in fact, benefit from the changing climate.
Speculating about what Wooster and Northeast Ohio (NEO) will look like in 50 to 100 years engages people with their environment. Some have speculated that the region will become more friendly to new types of flora and fauna, making it a lush, green world not too dissimilar to warmer parts of Japan in appearance. Climate futures are grounded in climate pasts, so while it may be fascinating to envision new ecologies, there are forceful reminders like the 1969 floods everywhere.
Ohioans’ relationship with water is undergoing a renegotiation as they are forced to cope with more of it; urban runoff will increase, agricultural runoff will lead to more toxic algae blooms and more rainfall will contribute to a unique ecology that requires an updated understanding of the natural world and its adaptations. In a very literal sense, NEO mayors and elected officials have been approached by their counterparts from the Southwestern United States on the possibility of buying “inches” of Lake Erie water from the Great Lakes states.
Perhaps it is farsighted to engage with speculative climate futures, but it is not so to remember what happens when mother nature behaves unpredictably, a reality that will become ever more apparent as temperatures rise and rain gauges spill over.
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