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Poll: 45% of Southerners say they've been impacted by ‘extreme weather’ in recent years

Damage from a tornado is seen in downtown Mayfield, Ky.
Derek Operle
Damage to homes in Mayfield after the December 2021 tornado outbreak.

A Gallup pollreleased last week found that one in three Americans – and nearly half of Southerners – say their lives have been impacted by ‘extreme’ weather over the past two years.

Extreme weather, as defined in the poll, includes events like extreme cold, snow and ice storms, floods, tornadoes and high winds.

The poll’s results reflect an increase in perceived extreme weather for Southerners particularly. A similar Gallup poll in 2022 saw just 39% of southern U.S. residents say extreme weather had impacted their lives, with this year's figure at 45%.

That uptick in perceived extreme weather could be felt by Kentuckians. Commonwealth residents haven’t been strangers to these phenomena over the past couple of years.

Deadly tornadoes have killed dozens of Kentuckians across the state. The December 2021 storms that impacted the western and central portions of the state caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage and storms this spring have caused destruction and death in Paducah, Hopkinsville and Louisville. Meanwhile, in eastern Kentucky, dozens of communities were hit with historic and deadly levels of flooding that could set the region and its residents back years.

Jerry Brotzge is the Kentucky State Climatologist and the director of the Kentucky Climate Center and the Kentucky Mesonet.

“If you interviewed Kentuckians, I think, particularly after the flooding events from last year, the tornadoes in December 2021, maybe our percentages would be even higher here in Kentucky.”

Bassil El Masri is an associate professor and a program coordinator for Murray State University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He studies the effects of climate change on the environment. He also said he wasn’t surprised by the results and actually “thought the number would be a little higher” if Kentuckians were polled specifically.

“Particularly in this area – maybe in the last two years – if you look at western Kentuckians, it might be that everyone somehow experienced extreme weather,” El Masri said.

Neither El Masri nor Brotzge directly tied the perceived uptick in extreme weather to climate change. The Murray State professor said it could just be part of an atmospheric cycle.

“The last two years we're having more extreme storms, tornadoes, more warnings, flash floods and so on. It's increasing in the last few years but I'm not going to jump and say, ‘This is all climate change,’” El Masri said. “Part of it could be just sort of the cycle we're in in the atmosphere between transitioning to maybe now La Niña instead of El Niño … [that] might change the circulation and might impact us.”

Brotzge, too, said climate data doesn’t indicate a long-term upward trend in extreme weather for the state.

“When you look at the Kentucky record, it's very common to have maybe a 20 year quiet period, and then you'll have a catastrophic event. And we've had the unfortunate bad luck of having a couple of those events within the last few years. And hopefully, it'll be more than 20 years before we have another one.”

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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