Flooding in Connecticut: Much More to Come, Experts Say

Connecticut by the Numbers

A flooded local street in Connecticut, one of many this month.CT by the Numbers image

There was substantial flooding in Connecticut this week, from a relatively mild brush with a hurricane-turned-tropical storm. It could have been considerably worse. It was, however, a reminder of the damage that flooding can do along the state’s coastline, and inland.

A report this summer, looking ahead at the potential for cataclysmic weather along the nation’s coastline as soon as a decade from now, took on greater meaning this week.

Led by the members of the NASA Sea Level Change Science Team from the University of Hawaii, the new study shows that high tides will exceed known flooding thresholds around the country more often. The floods will sometimes occur in clusters lasting a month or longer, depending on the positions of the Moon, Earth, and the Sun. When the Moon and Earth line up in specific ways with each other and the Sun, the resulting gravitational pull and the ocean’s corresponding response may leave city dwellers coping with floods every day or two, the report explains.

“Low-lying areas near sea level are increasingly at risk and suffering due to the increased flooding, and it will only get worse,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “The combination of the Moon’s gravitational pull, rising sea levels, and climate change will continue to exacerbate coastal flooding on our coastlines and across the world. NASA’s Sea Level Change Team is providing crucial information so that we can plan, protect, and prevent damage to the environment and people’s livelihoods affected by flooding.”

The report indicates that coastal areas that now face just two or three floods a month may soon face a dozen or more. These prolonged coastal flood seasons will cause major disruptions to lives and livelihoods if communities don't start planning for them now, the researchers cautioned.

In the mid-2030s, global sea level rise will have been at work for another decade. The higher seas, amplified by the lunar cycle, will cause what is described as a leap in flood numbers on almost all U.S. mainland coastlines, as well as on Hawaii and Guam, according to the new report.

Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) has not responded to inquiries from Connecticut by the Numbers for comment on the report and efforts to mitigate the impact in Connecticut. The state’s official website notes that “Connecticut and its cities, towns and tribal nations, are susceptible to flooding throughout the year in both the summer and winter months. Numerous rivers run through Connecticut and the state contains the estuaries for several major rivers.” The site adds that “Those who live in low lying areas who have experienced flooding in the past should expect flooding once again.”

In Manchester this week surveying flood damage, joined by Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy and local officials, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal said, “All around the state, this flooding has been almost biblical… I think there’s going to be a lot of reconstruction and a lot of reevaluating how we prepare for this kind of flooding.”

“Local, state and federal lawmakers must not wait to plan for this,” implored Laura Lightbody, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project in a Washington Post article earlier this month. “This is no hypothetical warning. It will happen in the coming decades. The time to prepare is now.”

Lightbody added, “They must build partnerships, expand resources and create policies that prioritize resiliency in coastal areas. Citizens must let elected leaders know that it’s not acceptable to push aside new warnings about climate change. And they must make clear that they will not tolerate frequent floodwaters lapping at their homes, businesses and community infrastructure.”

In her article, Lightbody noted that “Maryland and New Jersey have developed policies to promote nature-based solutions to combat future flooding problems. These solutions include open green space, restoration of wetlands and other projects that maximize nature’s ability to absorb floodwaters.”

Ben Hamlington of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California is a co-author of the research paper and also the leader of NASA’s Sea Level Change Team. He notes that the findings of the new study are a vital resource for coastal urban planners, who may be focused on preparing for extreme events rather than more high-tide floods.

The publication Live Science recently pointed out that the moon influences the tides, but the power of the moon's pull isn't equal from year to year; the moon actually has a "wobble" in its orbit, slightly altering its position relative to Earth on a rhythmic 18.6-year cycle. For half of the cycle, the moon suppresses tides on Earth, resulting in lower high tides and higher low tides. For the other half of the cycle, tides are amplified, with higher high tides and lower low tides, according to NASA.

We are currently in the tide-amplifying part of the cycle; the next tide-amplifying cycle begins in the mid-2030s; — and, by then, global sea levels will have risen enough to make those higher-than-normal high tides particularly troublesome, the researchers found.

In a little more than a decade, high-tide flooding will transition "from a regional issue to a national issue with a majority of U.S. coastlines being affected," the report’s authors wrote. Other elements of the climate cycle, like El Niño events, will cause these flood days to cluster in certain parts of the year, resulting in entire months of unrelenting coastal flooding.

William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), discussing the report in Wired magazine this month, said “There's going to be a flood in your future. And that future is here."

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