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CASTROPHIC FLOODS ARE GOING TO HIT THE U. S. MORE OFTEN

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CASTROPHIC FLOODS ARE GOING TO HIT THE U. S. MORE OFTEN

Post by Harry on Tue Aug 04, 2015 10:30 am

Catastrophic Floods Are Going to Hit the U.S. More Often
Click to Open Overlay GalleryIn this aerial photo, people canoe through floodwaters past a stop sign near Bear Creek Park Saturday, May 30, 2015, in Houston. David J. Phillip/AP
Two-fifths of all Americans live in a county on the coast. If it were possible to assemble all those counties, jigsaw-like, into one country, it would have the third highest GDP in the world. And every settled inch of that land is in danger of washing away.

The problem isn’t that coastal cities don’t know they’re next to an angry ocean. It’s that the ocean seems to be getting angrier. The problem is what’s called, in the language of infrastructure, a “combined flood.” It’s what happens when a storm-powered rising sea-level, a “surge,” coincides with heavy precipitation. The sewers fill first—hello, brownwater!—and maybe the ground gets too saturated to hold any more water. So the water table rebels, overwhelming the city’s flood management technology.

It happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and in New York during Superstorm Sandy. A new study—one of the first to look at combined flooding—published Monday in Nature Climate Change shows that these events have been increasing over the past half century. And it’s going to happen a lot more often when the overall sea level also happens to be rising—which it is, faster than anyone thought, according to a paper published last week by preeminent climate scientist James Hanson (that has not yet been peer reviewed).

The idea of combined flooding is not new—overflowing sewers from Miami to the San Jose have shown cities what happens when stormwater systems can’t flush rainwater out. But until now researchers have rarely studied the effects of storm surge and precipitation in combination. “These things have been done piecemeal,” says Shaleen Jain, a structural engineer at the University of Maine and co-author of the new study. “You have a whole community of hydrologists who have focused on inland processes and coastal scientists and researchers who are focused on storm surges.”

Not surprisingly, the Gulf and Atlantic coast regions were most at risk. “Mainly because they are affected by hurricanes or tropical cyclones, which often lead to large storm surges and bring significant amounts of rain,” says Jain’s co-author Thomas Wahl, a coastal engineer at the University of South Florida. But areas in the west—from Seattle to Los Angeles—are also subject to combined flooding. Wet and windy mid-latitude storms gallop across the Pacific Northwest throughout the winter, and California can get doused by the Pineapple Express.

All of that is happening more often. The researchers used statistical tools to find extreme highs in the tide logs and rainfall records for each of the 30 cities in the study. Then they measured how frequently the extreme highs coincided. In many cities, big storm surges and heavy rains didn’t often happen at the same time. In a few, the two weather phenomena were even negatively correlated. When one happened, the other did not. But starting around the 1960s—in some cases way earlier—storm surge and heavy rain started happening together with more frequency.

So…climate change? Stronger storms and higher seas are hallmarks of the new reality, but the authors stopped short of giving the world’s new normal credit for their results. “We were mostly focused on tide gauge and rainfall records,” and did not look at how sensitive these records were to changes in climate, says Jain.

But Jain and Wahl are engineers—they’re more interested in solutions than causes. “For instance, just last week the US Government Accountability Office issued their assessment of how well the Army Corps of Engineers is prepared to handle extreme storms,” Jain says. Work like his could help the Corps prioritize which projects they should tackle first.

And it’s not just the Army Corps. The whole US is ready to crumble. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a D+ in their quadrennial report card. This report looked at the entire country, and didn’t dole out grades to individual states, cities, or counties. But given that coastal counties are responsible for 40 percent of that grade looking at population and GDP, the law of averages dictates that few are well-prepared. When it comes to combined flooding, they’re graded on the same curve.

Harry
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