Thursday, 13 October 2016

Hurricane Matthew's swath of destruction

Yes, Climate Change Helped Matthew Produce a Massive Swath of Destruction Extending From Haiti to Southeastern Virginia

11 October, 2016

Too close to home. That’s the sentence that best describes hurricane Matthew’s impacts — at least for this particular observer. And it’s one that I think we will be saying more and more often over the coming years as sea levels rise and peak storm intensities continue to increase due to a human-forced warming of the world’s atmosphere and oceans.

(Hurricane Matthew interacted with a trough to dump 1 in 1000 year rains over North Carolina and Virginia on October 8th even as its powerful storm surge continued to flood coastal communities. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Severe Damage To Florida Coastline Communities — But it Could Have Been Worse

On Thursday, October 6th, as the storm was barreling in toward the Florida coastline, I was on the phone with numerous Florida relatives — somewhat frantically asking if they’d heeded evacuation orders and gotten away from low-lying areas near the ocean. One uncle had decided to hunker down in an inlet-side New Smyrna Beach home about 6 feet above sea level, but the rest had headed inland. Thankfully, Matthew passed just off shore of New Smyrna at low tide — only giving my uncle a bit of a scare by flooding his neighborhood but not completely inundating his house (as would have happened if Matthew had made landfall in that community as a category 4 storm rather than remaining at sea).
Further north, my college town of St. Augustine, FL did not fair quite so well. Downtown St. Augustine, which borders the Matanzas River — an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean — saw Matthew sweeping by at high tide. As a result, severe storm surge flooding rose up over the sea wall and put the city’s streets under 3-4 feet of water. Local businesses flooded, a 17th Century Fort that is a tourist attraction saw its moat fill and then overtop, and Flagler College, which I attended during the 1990s, had its grounds soaked. Nearby, parts of Route A1A on Flagler Beach were swept out into the Atlantic Ocean even as the dune line at Jacksonville Beach was breached — precipitating significant tidal flooding through parts of that seaside city. But as with New Smyrna Beach, the situation would have been far worse for St. Augustine and Jacksonville if Matthew had made landfall and not remained off shore.

Matthew Delivers Severe Flooding to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia

As the storm passed just to the east of North Florida on October 7th, consensus model guidance at the time suggested that Matthew would re-curve out to sea after battering Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, returning for a possible second hit to Florida by about the 13th as a much weakened system. However, Matthew instead took a more northerly track — hugging the coastline. As a result, moderate to severe coastal flooding impacted beach after beach from Georgia and on through South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia even as heavy rains inundated the region.

(Matthew pushes storm surge flooding into Murrells Inlet — inundating local communities and swamping this marina. Video source: Huge Storm Surge Follows Hurricane Matthew.)

At Murrells Inlet — a late-summer and early fall reunion and beach-going spot for my family — over-wash from the ocean and tidal flooding from the local inlet pushed 1-2 feet of water into numerous neighborhoods. A local marina from which family members have enjoyed both the scenic view of the inlet and such water activities as kayaking through the teeming waterways to experience close-up encounters with local fish and wildlife was completely flooded out on the 8th of October as Matthew passed (see video above).
Meanwhile, severe flooding rains were just starting to sweep into North Carolina on the 8th and 9th — presenting a serious problem even as coastal communities along the Outer Banks received a significant battering. A large swath of the state saw up to 16 inches of rain fall. These rains hit regions already saturated by previous extreme rainfall events. As a result, water-logged grounds could not take in any more precipitation and rainfall runoff swiftly flooded streets and streams. The flooding has, by early Tuesday afternoon, left 14 people dead, three people missing, and thousands of homes inundated by rising waters. A severe flood situation that is still ongoing as of October 12th. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrorystated earlier today that:  “Too many people have died, and we don’t want anymore to die. Yet there are going to be conditions during the next 72 hours which will be extremely dangerous.”
(Hundreds of vehicles, homes and businesses were flooded across Hampton Roads as a result of Matthew’s severe storm surge and heavy rainfall. The region has grown particularly vulnerable during recent years due to sea level rise — which has added about 1.5 feet of water rise over the past 100 years and could add another 2-3 feet or more by mid-Century under a business as usual fossil fuel burning emissions path. Image source: Hurricane Matthew Causes Widespread Flooding, Power Outages.)

On the 8th and 9th Matthew also began to hurl its flooding rains and storm surge at my parents’, grandparents’, and sister’s homes in the Hampton Roads cities of Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth. A local river backing up to the Albermarle and Pamlico sounds rapidly filled with storm surge flooding — inundating my parents’ neighborhood and leaving them stranded. Flooding in Chesapeake also stranded my sister in her home. Flooding from heavy rains and a significant storm surge swept into houses on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach near my grandmother’s residence. Downtown Norfolk was shut down by storm flooding (see Granby street image above) and the heavy rains of Matthew combined with a previous severe rainfall event just two weeks ago to produce more than 30 inches of accumulated rainfall over the past 30 days for some parts of Hampton Roads. The result of Matthew’s combined heavy rains and storm surge for the region was never-before seen flooding for many areas — including my parents’ neighborhood.
Matthew and the Continuing Erosion of Normalcy

Thankfully, everyone I know is OK. But the same cannot be said for six people living in Florida and Georgia, 14 (and possibly more) people living in North Carolina, and over 1,000 people who are now thought to have lost their lives as Matthew made its first catastrophic landfall in Haiti. There, tens of thousands are estimated to be homeless as a result of the storm which leveled entire forests and towns as it roared ashore packing 130 mph sustained winds. Now, aid agencies are struggling to reach the survivors even as tropical diseases such as cholera threaten to spread in the unsanitary conditions following in the storm’s wake.

(Hurricane Matthew maintained strength as a major hurricane for the longest period of time on record for any October storm in the North Atlantic. Near record warm surface waters and a record warm and moist global atmosphere helped to enable Matthew to remain strong for such a long period of time — producing severe damage along a swath stretching for about 1,500 miles. Image source: WLXT.)

As a family, my relatives have suffered dislocation and some property damage from the storm. But we are among the fortunate ones. We did not experience the devastating material losses and loss of life that has impacted some in Haiti or North Carolina. However, what we have experienced is a loss of security. We’ve seen floods that have never happened before in the neighborhoods we occupy and in the places we have grown to love and cherish. And we find ourselves wondering what the next Matthew will bring — or the next, or the next.
Conditions in Context — Climate Change is Making Storms Like Matthew More Powerful and Devastating

Matthew was an extraordinarily powerful storm whose devastating toll will continue to be counted during the coming weeks and months along its broad and wide-ranging swath. But as we pick up the pieces, respond to the still ongoing disasters in North Carolina and Haiti, and begin to rebuild try return to semi-normalcy, we should also seriously consider the conditions that helped to spawn Matthew and to bring about its record October intensity. For Matthew emerged over near-record hot waters, formed a record hot world, and produced its damaging storm surges out of seas that are rising due to human-forced climate change.
(Rising sea levels spurred by global warming is an enabler of worsening coastal flooding during storms. In addition, added atmospheric moisture and ocean heat due to global warming increases peak potential storm intensity. Image source: Dr. James Hansen Warns Seas Could Rise by Several Meters This Century.)

Matthew’s heavy rains were unarguably pumped up by near record atmospheric moisture levels due to conditions related to climate change. And Matthew’s long, strong intensity was fed by all that climate change related heat and moisture. Like Sandy and Katrina, Matthew was a fore-runner to the worse storms that are now on the way. Storms made worse by our continued burning of fossil fuels and what is a wholesale global dumping of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. Until that stops and the Earth starts to cool — freak events like Matthew and Sandy will continue to occur. To grow worse and to have their peak wind intensities pumped higher, their rains intensified, and their storms surges compounded by by rising sea levels, larger storm circulations, and stronger wind fields.

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