West Virginia is no stranger to ravaging floods, severe droughts and other climate change threats. One West Virginia University expert, Nicolas Zegre, thinks the state can shape possible solutions to future weather-related disruptions by applying a thing or two from how it’s effectively approached COVID-19: Listen to the science.
While COVID-19 devastated many facets of life across the country and the world, West Virginia has been heralded as a leader in its response to the pandemic, particularly its vaccine rollout.
“West Virginia has received a tremendous amount of praise and well-earned press,” said Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
Zegre points to the expanded decision-making circle created early in the pandemic when Gov. Jim Justice and other state leaders called on a variety of resources, among them the National Guard, private sector and experts from across the higher education landscape including WVU to help craft an effective immediate and long-term response.
“It demonstrated how science can be used to mitigate the impact of a disruption, and how science and healthcare can be used to protect West Virginians and our economy,” said Zegre, who is also director of the WVU Mountain Hydrology Laboratory.
Currently, West Virginia faces many climate threats because of its unique location in the country. The northeast part of the country is seeing warmer temperatures and more precipitation whereas the southeast is also getting warmer but experiencing drier conditions. Due to West Virginia’s location, Zegre describes the state as a transition area that is experiencing all three: warming, drying and wetting.
In 2016, West Virginia floods destroyed more than 1,500 homes and businesses and killed at least 23 people. Afterward, Zegre and his colleagues Jamie Shinn, assistant professor of geography, and Martina Caretta, former assistant professor of geography, conducted a study on the impact on the communities, revealing a direct link between vulnerability, inadequate infrastructure and lack of education around flooding and weather.
In research published in 2019, Zegre projected the following trends could occur in West Virginia by the end of the 21st century: up to a 10-degree (Fahrenheit) jump in average temperature, increased evaporation along mountain ridges, more frequent droughts and a rise in extreme events (i.e. heat waves, tornadoes, flooding).
“In West Virginia, we are expected to see more intense floods and more intense droughts and everything in between,” he said. “Being a highly vulnerable population to begin with, we stand to be even more vulnerable in the future.”
Since 2016, there have been more than 700 floods logged across the state and billions of dollars spent by the state’s government in handling the aftermath of each event.
“When I talk about climate change, flooding and water security, the one question I always get is ‘What can I do about climate change?’ It's really complex, so the most important thing we can do is be well-informed citizens, talk about climate change and advocate to our elected decisionmakers.”
While there is no quick fix to climate change threats, Zegre believes lessons can be learned from the state’s response to COVID-19 and that applying the COVID-19 response framework to future crises will result in safer communities.
“By allowing experts, science and data to inform public response and readiness with the pandemic, the state highlighted the importance and effectiveness of collaboration between government, academia and other entities in handling threats to the basic functions of West Virginia,” Zegre said.
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