3 Questions Worth Answering in the Wake of Winter Storm Grayson

, Senior analyst, Climate & Energy | January 5, 2018, 6:16 pm EDT
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Yesterday in Massachusetts we were asking ourselves questions that have rarely, if ever, needed asking.

What happens when half-frozen seawater suddenly floods onto roadways? Can something the consistency of a milkshake and 3 feet deep be plowed? There’s a large dumpster floating down the street… What depth of water is sufficient to do that? What happens if some of this water freezes in place before it retreats (as I write this, the temps have plummeted to 12 degrees F and dropping)? Will those cars now filled with seawater in the snow-emergency parking lot run again? What if the water freezes inside them over the weekend, can that punch out doors?

The stories are countless. In Salem, MA, my mother watched out her window as fire and rescue workers hauled someone to safety on a raft through at times waist-deep water.

A rescue underway on normally busy route 107 behind my parents’ house in Salem. (Note the “flood zone” sign and mentally add exclamation points.) Credit: Fred Biebesheimer.

My colleagues and I think about coastal flooding a lot, but the footage from yesterday had our brains buzzing with new unknowns and threats never considered.

I’ve been keeping an eye on social media, the news, and hearing from friends and family, and these three questions emerged for me as needing to be asked and answered.

Why was this flooding so much worse than forecast?

In the lead up to yesterday’s storm, dubbed “Grayson” by the Weather Channel, the coastal flooding forecasts shifted from minor to moderate, from moderate to major. Coastal residents monitoring  this would have been concerned but not nearly enough. Even as the storm was getting underway, the flooding forecasts greatly understated what actually played out on the ground.

In the end, severe flooding struck multiple areas of the coast of Massachusetts from the North Shore to the Cape, with chest-high water in some locations, emergency boat rescues, and damage that we’re just beginning to take stock of. People were caught off guard, greatly increasing the risk to public safety and the damage to property.  For example, below is a shot of the Gloucester High School parking lot where residents are instructed to park their cars in a snow emergency. Ouch.

Why didn’t we see this coming?

The reasons given by local meteorologists for the surprising severity are the astronomical high tide (Monday was a full moon) that coincided with the storm’s path, and strong onshore winds creating significant storm surge and damaging waves. The tide itself is no mystery and our ability to forecast storm surge is pretty good. The wind speeds and snowfall totals were mostly as forecast. So where was the gap between our forecasting methods and tools and this storm’s true coastal flood potential? And how do we close it? Have asked the National Weather Service Boston Office, and can report back.

Was this flooding made worse by climate change?

Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh declared “If anyone wants to question global warming, just see where the flood zones are. Some of those zones did not flood 30 years ago.” And he did so while the storm was still lashing the city. The days of tiptoeing around this question are clearly over.

So, what can and can’t be said here on sound scientific footing? Like any storm, there were a lot of factors responsible for yesterday’s: wind speed and direction, and the resulting storm surge and wave height. And there are two ways that climate change plays a role in the impact of storms like this.

On the one hand, it can influence a storm itself – causing it to form faster, become stronger, etc., so that when it strikes, it has greater potential for doing damage. Tracing this to climate change is harder to do, but the science is catching up. As climate scientist and colleague, Rachel Licker, pointed out this week “According to the American Meteorological Society’s new report, science is now not only able to detect a climate change signal in individual extreme events, science is now able to determine whether climate change caused by humans was essential in the development of an extreme event. In other words, science is now at the point where it is able to tell us whether certain extreme events would or would not have happened without climate change.”

We don’t know the day after, however. Such research takes time. But I expect we’ll hear more about the detection of climate change fingerprints on this storm in the months to come. See my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel’s blog for more on this specific topic.

The other way climate change plays a role in the impact of storms is clear and can be discussed more definitively today: today’s storms have higher water levels to “work with” due to sea level rise. In Boston, water levels have risen ~5 inches just since the blizzard of ’78. (This upward trend is also responsible for the increased tidal flooding along Boston’s waterfront.) So ANY storm that hits our coasts today is working with water that is higher and closer to our cities, buildings, homes, and infrastructure, than when we first put them there.

It was interesting to note that the tide height associated with this storm topped the Blizzard of ‘78 by hundredths of an inch. In its defense, the Blizzard of 78 was working with an ocean that was 5 inches “shorter”. If that exact storm happened today, the flooding would be worse than it was in 1978 given this additional water. And importantly, the damages would likely be worse as well, given the additional people, property, and stuff we’ve put along our coasts since that time.

But speaking of comparisons. We released an analysis in 2017 that identified areas along the entire US coast that would flood on a chronic basis, just with normal tidal fluctuations. By 2060, the general area of Boston that flooded yesterday would flood at least 26 times per year, irrespective of storms or rainfall, with a high rate of sea level rise. (Add storms and rainfall and the frequency rises.) That’s about 45 years from now, well within the lifetime of the buildings and infrastructure we’ve built and continue to build in these areas. With a more moderate rate of sea level increase, it would flood chronically a couple of decades later.

Boston’s storm-flooded area becomes it’s tidally-flooded area later this century.

This sunny-day flooding—the kind seen today at places like Long Wharf during extreme high tides—wouldn’t have the destructive waves of yesterday’s storm. It would, however, put large areas under inches and potentially feet of sea water, it would be unaffected by the construction of major harbor storm barrier, and it would preclude business-as-usual along some of the busiest and highest-value parts of Boston’s waterfront. Go to this link to view your own coastal community.

Importantly, our analysis also shows that a lower rate of sea level rise, associated with adherence to the Paris Climate Agreement, could greatly reduce this flooding.

What are some responsible takeaways?

We’ll be taking stock of this storm for some time to come.

Boston, a city with a strong and growing commitment to coastal climate preparedness and resilience, an unsurpassed local expert community, and uniquely engaged business and philanthropic sectors, can emerge as an even stronger national leader in the wake of this storm.

Massachusetts, with its growing if patchy commitment to the same, can recognize its mounting exposure to coastal flooding and get much more serious on this front. Republican MA Governor Charlie Baker’s Executive Order on state government adaptation efforts shows that sensible, bipartisan action is possible. Passage of the bill to establish a comprehensive adaptation management action plan (CAMP) would codify this Order and represent a serious commitment toward tackling our climate risks.

The important takeaway for Boston, Gloucester, Scituate, Barnstable, Salem, and on down the line—as well as for places in other states that dodged this bullet, this time—is not simply how do we prepare for storms like this. It’s how do we prepare for a future —and to a certain extent, a present—where storms have the potential to be more destructive, and where no storm is needed for transformative flooding to occur. In Massachusetts, we can do that, and the sooner we start, the less costly and disruptive it will be.

My kids’ favorite playground during the storm. Credit: Caroline Maloney.

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  • Gerry Hayes

    Scientists have already predicted that global warming would cause more extreme weather and coastal flooding. It is not bizarre to blame this on a warming planet where ocean levels are higher and storm surges push further inland. Remember that the extreme cold event is only covering 6% of the planet’s surface.
    Warmer oceans deliver stronger storms. Alaska is having a warmer than normal winter. My daughter lives in Melbourne, Australia. It normally has a moderate maritime climate. Last week the temperature there was 107 degrees. Sydney hit 117 degrees.

  • Tommy Kirchhoff

    Seems absolutely bizarre to me to blame extreme, record-setting coldness on “warming.” Let’s just remember that the vastness of space is measured in the Kelvin temperature scale.

    • Gerry Hayes

      Scientists have already predicted that global warming would cause more extreme weather and coastal flooding. It is not bizarre to blame this on a warming planet where ocean levels are higher and storm surges push further inland. Remember that the extreme cold event is only covering 6% of the planet’s surface.
      Warmer oceans deliver stronger storms. Alaska is having a warmer than normal winter. My daughter lives in Melbourne, Australia. It normally has a moderate maritime climate. Last week the temperature there was 107 degrees. Sydney hit 117 degrees.

      • Tommy Kirchhoff

        Paleoclimate records demonstrate that the earth’s temperatures and climates are right on time in the 100,000-year period– roughly 90,000 years of glaciation and a quick 10,000 year spike of warming or interglaciation. Even the 3-degree Celsius rise in temp’s speculated by climate scientists will not overcome the 9-degree drop that is the 90,000 year norm. The ice cores taken by the U.S. in Greenland show that Greenland has already been cooling for 6000 years, where the Glacier Girl airplane crashed in the 1940s and was since covered in 240 feet of ice.

      • Gerry Hayes

        You are making an assumption that the increase in ocean levels due to carbon caused temperature levels is part of a natural cycle. The fact is that climate cycles occur over tens of thousands of years. The changes in climate warming are spiking at an alarming rate that has to been seen in mankind’s existence. The cause is the burning of carbon from geological eras prior to man’s existence and dumping them into the current atmosphere.
        Regarding the Glacier Girl airplane, it is in a melting glacial crevasse and the glacier is moving too fast to the sea for the P-38 to be safely recovered.

      • Tommy Kirchhoff

        Nope. No again. Mankind’s existence is nominal compared to the paleoclimate. Oh, thank you for the opine.
        Oh, thank you again.

      • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

        Hello Gerry — Yes, the conditions in Australia are alarming. Thanks for your comment. If you’re not familiar with it, you might enjoy “geeking out” with this tool that I like use to check out the current sea surface and land temps and anomalies: http://cci-reanalyzer.org/

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Tommy, You might be interested in my colleague’s recent blog on this topic: https://blog.ucsusa.org/brenda-ekwurzel/the-polar-vortex-winter-storm-grayson-and-climate-change-whats-the-connection. Looks like you ski — I hope you get a good snowy winter wherever you are.

      • Tommy Kirchhoff

        Thanks Erika. We’re having a good snow storm in Colorado today.

      • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

        Jealous. The snow was the nice upshot of this storm, but it’s about to get rained on for 2 days. It’s okay though — as winter activities go, skiing is second to grumbling about the weather here in New England.

  • Paul Champlin

    Time to seriously think about what a major hurricane would look like – better now than when it is immanent!

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Agreed. This storm provided some powerful images! Now to hold on to them and get down to the business of preparing for the near and long term.

  • glennk

    Tidal effects in large coastal storms are to be expected especially with rapidly rising sea levels along much of the East coast.

    • Erika Spanger-Siegfried

      Yes. And on a different note, but for the same reason, increased *tidal* flooding even without coastal storms. You might be interested in this analysis of chronic coastal flooding we released last July. http://www.ucsusa.org/RisingSeasHitHome