Warmer world equals wetter world: Climate change 'supercharging' water cycle, study finds

'It's projected to continue that the West will get drier and the East will get wetter in the future,' Climate Central analyst says

Temperatures continue to rise annually across the globe, and a warmer world means a wetter world, according to an analysis released Wednesday by Climate Central.

The group's study found that the rising temperatures are "supercharging" the water cycle, leading to an increase in the intensity of rainfall across the country. The analysis looked at 50 years of rainfall data going back to 1970 and found that extreme rain has increased, especially in urban areas. In total, 135 of 150 National Weather Service stations have seen an increase in hourly rainfall intensity since 1970. 


Earth's water cycle is a closed system, meaning the amount of water does not change. Instead, the planet's water is moving from one place to another. The analysis showed there is a redistribution of this water in some areas where they have not seen as much rainfall in the past, such as the Northeast, Ohio Valley, upper Midwest, Northern Plains, northern Rockies and Southwest. Conversely, places that have typically received much more rainfall in the past are seeing less.

"It's projected to continue that the West will get drier and the East will get wetter in the future," Climate Central senior data analyst Jen Brady said during an interview with FOX Weather on Wednesday. "And what we were looking at in particular was if it's going to come, is it coming in an hour, is it coming in two hours? Is it coming in a day?"

How fast does that extra rain fall?

Brady said that the analysis was focused on how fast that extra rain falls.

"What we were looking at in particular was if it's going to come, is it coming in an hour? Is it coming in two hours? Is it coming in a day?" Brady said.

Brady said that if the extra rain is falling in an hour instead of a day or two, it will have much more impact on an area's risk for flash flooding.

"It means that a rainstorm 50 years ago that may have produced 2 inches of rain over a couple of hours, now might produce 3 inches of rain," said Dr. Kevin Reed, the associate dean for research and associate professor for the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. "This is a large difference."


Brady said it also will play a role in simpler things like how often to water the lawn.

"We all have seen if it comes down in an hour, it's going to saturate and run off, but if it comes down over a nice day or two, then you're going to get a nice watering of all your garden plants in general," Brady said.

Reed said the analysis is further evidence that climate change is already a reality for many places.

"Climate change is often discussed as a distant problem that will impact future generations," Reed said. "While it will certainly impact future generations through further changes in rainfall, the reality is that climate change is here. Climate change is already changing our weather."

Aging infrastructure and heavy rain

From hurricanes Harvey and Idea to last year's flash flooding in Tennessee, these types of extreme rainfall events will continue to occur and intensify over the coming years and decades, according to Dr. Andreas Prein, project scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

"This is concerning since our infrastructure is aging and not adapted to these new types of extremes," Prein said.


"Particularly, when we consider that many of the U.S.'s flood prevention or mitigation systems, such as levees and stormwater drainage systems, were not designed with these changes in rainfall in mind," Reed said.

Can you prepare?

Brady said her team was not surprised to see increases in the hourly rainfall intensity, but it's difficult for people to prepare for these types of extremes. She said the only thing they can do is know that flooding is probably going to come more often.


"It may be more intense than what you've experienced before, so you need to be ready for that," Brady said.

She said that people who didn't carry flood insurance before might want to consider adding it in the future.