- Advertisement -
Chloe Matheney admires the rushing waters from Burnt Mill Bridge near Robbins after the Clear Fork River was driven out of banks by excessive rainfall on Friday, January 3, 2020 | Photo: Nancy Chambers

The numbers don’t lie: the 2019 calendar year was a soggy one in Scott County.

Despite an abbreviated drought that led to temporary burn bans after an abnormally dry September, 2019 went down as one of the wettest years on record in Oneida. And it wasn’t without company, as several of the wettest years on record have occurred recently.

According to official data compiled by the National Weather Service, nine of 12 months in 2019 featured above-average rainfall in Oneida, with a whopping 70.8 inches of rainfall recorded for the year.

The wettest month was February, when a record 12.89 inches of rainfall were received — nearly three times the norm of 4.71 inches for the month. March featured slightly below-average rainfall — 4.29 inches, compared to the norm of 5.53 inches — but April was nearly an inch above normal, and the trend continued through the summer months.

September was unusually dry, with less than four-tenths of an inch of rainfall recorded in Oneida; the norm for the month is nearly four inches of rain. But October belonged to the unusually-wet category, with 4.77 inches of rainfall recorded.

The year ended with 7.96 inches of rain in December. Typically, Oneida receives just over five inches of rain in the final month of the year.

The 70.8 inches of rainfall recorded in Oneida last year made 2019 the second-wettest month on record since records-keeping began in the early 1950s. The all-time wettest year was 2015, when 72.55 inches of rainfall were recorded in Oneida.

What made 2019 seem even wetter was the fact that Scott County was coming off an exceptionally wet 2018. In fact, the 69.05 inches of rain received in 2018 makes it the third-wettest year on record in Oneida. Throw in 67.76 inches of rain in 2014, and the four wettest years on record in Oneida have all occurred in the last six years. 

On top of that, 2017 was one of the 10 wettest years in Oneida, with 61.35 inches of rainfall recorded. Since 2014, only 2016 did not feature above-average rainfall. That was the year of extreme drought and wildfires in East Tennessee. For the year, just over 46 inches of rainfall were recorded in Oneida in 2016.

The normal annual rainfall in Oneida is 53.9 inches. But normal is quickly being redefined. In fact, the 53.9-inch statistic is based on the NWS’s rolling 30-year average, which presently is based on the calendar years 1981-2010. If that statistic were based on the most recent 30-year period, 1990-2019, it would jump significantly, to 61.7 inches of rainfall per year. And if it were based on the 21st century alone, it would jump even more, to 63.63 inches of rainfall per year. In the 2010s, Oneida recorded an average of 64.58 inches of rainfall per year.

All of those numbers add up to one undeniable conclusion: it rains more in the northern Cumberland Plateau region than it used to. The culprit? Apparently, changing climate. The politics of climate change remain a contentious subject in the United States, but a 2018 study by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) determined that “peak rain rates” — that is, the heaviest rains at the core of a storm — have increased by 30 percent over the past 60 years. In the U.S., the study determined, storms are 10 percent to 70 percent “wetter” than they were in the 1950s. The politics of the matter aside, a number of scientists blame the intensification of the hydrologic cycle on the warming climate in the U.S. Warmer air can hold more water, and the hotter atmosphere leads to easier evaporation.

Andreas Prein, the scientist who completed the UCAR study, blames greenhouse gases — specifically, the burning of fossil fuels by humans that releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Opponents of man-made climate change, or anthropogenic global warming, say that the changes are cyclical and not permanent. They point to changes in the sun, the earth’s orbit and its axial tilt as contributing factors to the changing climate.

While the debate rages without an end in sight, the northern Cumberland Plateau region becomes increasingly wetter — though it’s been less than four years since Oneida’s water supply was running critically low due to a sustained drought. Meanwhile, the 2020 calendar year appears to be off to the same start as 2019. After two inches of rain sent streams out of their banks in the first days of 2020, another major rainfall event appears to be on tap for this weekend. Some early projections were for rainfall totals in excess of three inches for the northern plateau, though those predictions have since been scaled back somewhat. An active weather pattern — one that features little cold air and an active parade of storm systems through the region — doesn’t appear set to relax for at least the remainder of January. During that time, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting above-average temperatures and above-average rainfall for all of Tennessee.