Climate change impact on Nor'easters: An increased storm surge threat

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:53 PM GMT on February 11, 2013

The historic Nor'easter that buried New England under up to 40" of snow Friday and Saturday was the most intense winter storm event on record for southeastern Maine, and second most for Long Island, Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and perhaps Rhode Island, writes wunderground's weather historian Christopher C. Burt. His rating was based upon both snowfall amounts and winds. For Long Island and Connecticut, the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled, whereas for Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, the Blizzard of 1978 remains the top event. His rating took into account snowfall and winds, and took into account historical storms going back over 300 years. So, what impact is climate change having upon these great storms?


Figure 1. Is it a hurricane or an extratropical storm? Satellite image of Winter Storm Nemo taken at 3 pm EST Saturday, February 9, 2013 shows a very hurricane-like storm. The storm had undergone a process known as "occlusion", which trapped a shallow area of warm air near the center. These "warm air seclusions" are not uncommon in intense wintertime extratropical storms, and Nemo was not very hurricane-like in structure, despite the appearance of this satellite image. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.

Climate change impact on Nor'easters: an increased storm surge threat
We should not be surprised to see climate change causing significant changes in the frequency and intensity of Nor'easters, since the atmosphere is undergoing great changes in its circulation patterns and moisture content that will affect all storms. As I wrote in my post, The future of intense winter storms, climate models predict that intense winter storms will become more common globally, and will shift closer to the poles. However, in the Atlantic, intense Nor'easters affecting the U.S. are not predicted to increase in number (but several studies predict an increase in intense winter storms for Northwest Europe.) The number of intense Nor'easters affecting the Northeast U.S. has not increased in recent decades, according to several studies. This analysis is supported by the fact that wintertime wave heights recorded during the period 1975 - 2005 by the three buoys along the central U.S. Atlantic coast showed little change (Komar and Allan, 2008). The damage potential from the storm surges associated with Nor'easters and hurricanes in New England is steadily increasing, though, due to global warming.


Figure 2. Surf from the infamous blizzard of 1978 pounds the coast of Scituate, Massachusetts on February 9, 1978. The storm brought Boston's highest water level on record. Hurricane Sandy brought a higher storm surge to Boston, but the storm hit when the tide was going out, and thus did not set a record high water mark. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

An increased storm surge threat for Boston
Of the top ten water levels measured in Boston Harbor since 1921 (all due to Nor'easters), all but one of these events occurred during the the second half of that 92-year period. That's due to rising sea levels. The official top ten storm tides since 1921 at the Boston tide gauge, relative to high tide (Mean Higher High Water, MHHW):

1. 4.82' - February 7, 1978 (Blizzard of 1978)
2. 3.92' - January 2, 1987
3. 3.86' - October 30, 1991 (Perfect Storm)
4. 3.76' - January 28, 1979
5. 3.75' - December 12, 1992
6. 3.70' - December 12, 1959
7. 3.62' - February 2, 1972
8. 3.52' - April 4, 2007
9. 3.51' - May 5, 2005
10. 3.43' - December 12, 2010

Sea level at the Boston tide gauge has risen about a foot (.25 meters) since records began in 1921. Most of that rise is due to the expansion of ocean waters due to global warming, plus increased melting from glaciers and icecaps. According to an excellent analysis by Andrew Freedman of Climate Central, continued sea level rise in Boston will increase the odds of a 1-in-100 year coastal storm surge flood by a factor of 2.5 by the year 2030. Even given the low end of sea level rise scenarios, and without assuming any changes in storms, 1-in-10-year coastal flooding events in the Northeast could triple by 2100, occurring roughly once every 3 years, simply in response to higher sea levels (Tebaldi et al. 2012). Nemo arrives just days after a report the nonprofit Boston Harbor Alliance warned of the region’s growing vulnerability to such storm surge events. The report found that coastal flooding of 5 feet above the current average high tide--a 1-in-100 year flood--would inundate 6.6 percent of the city of Boston. At 7.5 feet above the current average high tide, more than 30 percent of Boston could be flooded, the study found. Boston has gotten lucky two storms in row now--both Hurricane Sandy (storm surge of 4.57') and Winter Storm Nemo (storm surge of 4.21') brought their peak surge near low tide, so the water level during these storms did not make the top-ten list, even though these were two of the four highest storm surges ever measured in Boston. Mr. Burt comments, "it is a bit unsettling that two of the most significant storms in the past 300 years to strike the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. have occurred within just four months from one another." Rising sea levels are already making coastal living at low elevations an increasingly precarious proposition in the Northeast. If Sandy and Nemo are harbingers of a new era of stronger storms for the Northeast U.S., the double-whammy combination of bigger storm surges riding in on higher sea levels will make abandoning higher-risk portions of the coast a necessity.


Figure 3. Severe beach erosion on Plum Island, MA, observed on February 10, 2013, in the wake of Winter Storm Nemo. It was lucky the peak storm surge hit near low tide, or else the coastal damage would have been far more severe. Image credit: Mike Seidel.


Figure 4. Sea level at the Boston tide gauge from 1921 - 2011 shows 2.77 mm/year of rise, or .98 feet (.25 meters) in 91 years. Image credit: NOAA Tides and Currents.

Links and references
My blog post, The future of intense winter storms

My blog post, Heavy snowfall in a warming world

Andrew Freedman of Climate Central's post, Blizzard of 2013 Brings Another Threat: Coastal Flooding

Joe Romm of climateprogress.org has a post, Climate Change and Winter Storm Nemo that has an excellent discussion of how climate change has modified the environment within which storms form, increasing their potential to cause heavy precipitation events.

Komar, P.D. and J.C. Allan, 2008: Increasing hurricane-generated wave heights along the U.S. East coast and their climate controls. Journal of Coastal Research, 24(2), 479-488.

Tebaldi, C., B.H. Strauss, and C.E. Zervas, 2012: Modelling sea level rise impacts on storm surges along US coasts. Environmental Research Letters, 7, 014032

Tom Niziol has an interesting post showing why Connecticut got so much snow from the storm: Northeast snow storm--the pivot point

Lee Grenci discusses how the two winter systems that combined to create the mighty snowstorm didn't really merge, but instead rotated around each other: Looming Snowstorm and the Fujiwhara.

Jeff Masters

Digging Out (steelrail)
Residents begin to dig out after a February Nor'easter dumped 29 inches of snow on Huntington, NY
Digging Out
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Cornish, ME (Mottoole)
Cornish, ME

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Model Analysis and Guidance 12z
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Quoting GeorgiaStormz:
new GFS vs last one:

New 12z:

IF..that last pic proves true..yet another nor'easter headed up there?
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seems to pass over DC this run:





Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9892
Just try to imagine this...Miss/Alabama..right now at 20 degree's....there would be more snow there than the highest amount that fell in the northeast...1 inch of rain about equals 1 foot of snow..they have had many many inches already and days yet to come...
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@Jeff - thank you.
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new GFS vs last one:

New 12z:

Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9892
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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


that's how it looks at mu place except the toad is plowed
looks like a Christmas post card huh...
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Quoting EricSpittle:

Both of them had a space in the URL, try:
Link

That was very eloquently written, you definitely have a future in writing if you keep it up.


Thanks! :-)
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
Quoting EricSpittle:

Both of them had a space in the URL, try:
Link

That was very eloquently written, you definitely have a future in writing if you keep it up.


Yes ! it was simply a wonderful piece wundergirl . The community are lucky that you shared it with them.
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Quoting GeorgiaStormz:


you here might be dangerous.
it's you after all.


lol. i'll summon a hurricane to suck you up. just joking.
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
Thanks Dr.; The damage potential from the storm surges associated with Nor'easters and hurricanes in New England is steadily increasing, though, due to global warming.

I had a GW epiphany moment walking the dog yesterday in what is normally the coldest month of the year in North Florida. Assuming that GW is a present fact (whether from a natural Earth cycle or also aggravated by carbon emissions), we are the first generation of humans (as a byproduct of the satellite/science age of the last 60 years)to actually document the large scale changes (jet stream, polar melt, oceanic/atmospheric circulations, global temperature anomalies, etc.) happening on Earth as we cycle into a warming period.

Assuming all the data we will be collecting over the next 100 years will be preserved in the records, people may be looking at this data 1000 years from now (after we have competed this cycle and perhaps gone neutral or into the next ice age) for the warning signs of the "next" warming period.

If humankind is still around 1000 years from now........... :)
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Quoting WunderGirl12:


Hahaha! Why would i want to go get you? I got other things to worry about...lol


you here might be dangerous.
it's you after all.
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9892
Quoting LargoFl:
SW Conn............


that's how it looks at mu place except the toad is plowed
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Quoting EricSpittle:

Both of them had a space in the URL, try:
Link

That was very eloquently written, you definitely have a future in writing if you keep it up.


ohh yeah...just read it. Awesome work WU Girl
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SW Conn............
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Quoting GeorgiaStormz:


oh no...i'll be ready.


Hahaha! Why would i want to go get you? I got other things to worry about...lol
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
Quoting WunderGirl12:
http://www.booksie.com/young_adult/essay/amaria_c ap stone/the-redwood-forest/nohead/pdf/ver/8

try this trHUrrIXC5MMX. :-) It's a pdf, btw

Both of them had a space in the URL, try:
Link

That was very eloquently written, you definitely have a future in writing if you keep it up.
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Quoting LargoFl:
BE CAREFUL UP THERE..flood advisories in georgia


Thanks for the warning! Just picking up a car in gwinnette. :-)


*pardon the spelling*
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
Thanks Doc,
Member Since: February 29, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 8216
Quoting GeorgiaStormz:



Btw the GFS/CMC/UKMET agree on the noreaster.
ECMWF is very weak with it to even not showing it.
GFS has another storm in 10 days.
yesterday NWS was going with the ECMWF model
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Quoting WunderGirl12:


Wunderful weather for me, while i go to Atlanta...


oh no...i'll be ready.
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9892
Member Since: Posts: Comments:



Btw the GFS/CMC/UKMET agree on the noreaster.
ECMWF is very weak with it to even not showing it.
GFS has another storm in 10 days.
Member Since: February 11, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 9892
Thanks, Dr. Masters. Why no mention of tornado that hit Hattiesburg, though? Just wondering. The discussion on this blog is going to be interesting...
Member Since: August 1, 2011 Posts: 28 Comments: 8172
Quoting WunderGirl12:


Wunderful weather for me, while i go to Atlanta...
BE CAREFUL UP THERE..flood advisories in georgia
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Quoting LargoFl:


Wunderful weather for me, while i go to Atlanta...
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
http://www.booksie.com/young_adult/essay/amaria_cap stone/the-redwood-forest/nohead/pdf/ver/8

try this trHUrrIXC5MMX. :-) It's a pdf, btw
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
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How much of the sea level rise has isostatic rebound subtracted?



All of it?
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Cheers Doc!!!
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Quoting trHUrrIXC5MMX:


broken link... at least for me


hmm...let me try again, or you can check out my blog post.
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
NO REST FOR THE WEARY...............URGENT - WINTER WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE TAUNTON MA
1025 AM EST MON FEB 11 2013

...A LIGHT WINTRY MIX OF PRECIPITATION THIS MORNING...

.A PERIOD OF SNOW...SLEET AND FREEZING RAIN WILL IMPACT MUCH OF
CONNECTICUT...RHODE ISLAND...MASSACHUSETTS AND SOUTHWEST NEW
HAMPSHIRE THIS MORNING. AS THE MORNING PROGRESSES AND ESPECIALLY
BY EARLY THIS AFTERNOON SOUTH WINDS WILL TRANSPORT WARMER AIR
ACROSS THE REGION WITH TEMPERATURES SURGING ABOVE FREEZING. THIS
WILL BRING AN END TO THE WINTRY PRECIPITATION. UNTIL THEN USE
CAUTION WHILE TRAVELING. ALSO KEEP IN MIND WHILE TEMPERATUES CLIMB
JUST ABOVE FREEZING...THE DEEP SNOWPACK WILL YIELD A FROZEN GROUND
UNTIL TEMPERATURES RISE INTO THE MID AND UPPER 30S. THEREFORE
SLIPPERY TRAVEL MAY PERSIST FOR A FEW HOURS AFTER TEMPERATURES
CLIMB ABOVE FREEZING.
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Thank you Dr. Masters
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Quoting WunderGirl12:
Hey guys! Check out my new blog post! you can check it out on WU, or you can check it out in the link below! It's the same thing. :-) Don't forget to comment!

WunderGirl12

http://www.booksie.com/young_adult/essay/amaria_c apstone/the-redwood-forest/chapter/1


broken link... at least for me
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THIS HAZARDOUS WEATHER OUTLOOK IS FOR THE MARYLAND PORTION OF THE
CHESAPEAKE BAY...TIDAL POTOMAC RIVER...AND ADJACENT COUNTIES IN
CENTRAL MARYLAND AND NORTHERN VIRGINIA AS WELL AS THE DISTRICT OF
COLUMBIA.

.DAY ONE...TODAY AND TONIGHT

A SMALL CRAFT ADVISORY IS IN EFFECT FOR THE TIDAL POTOMAC RIVER
AND MARYLAND CHESAPEAKE BAY THROUGH TONIGHT.

.DAYS TWO THROUGH SEVEN...TUESDAY THROUGH SUNDAY

A SMALL CRAFT ADVISORY IS IN EFFECT FOR THE WATERS ON TUESDAY.

A DEVELOPING LOW MAY IMPACT THE MID ATLANTIC BRINGING A WINTRY
MIX OF PRECIPITATION WEDNESDAY INTO EARLY THURSDAY. UNCERTAINTY
REMAINS WITH REGARD TO THE TRACK AND TIMING OF THIS SYSTEM...AND
ALSO HOW MUCH COLD AIR WILL BE IN PLACE. PLEASE MONITOR THE LATEST
FORECASTS.
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did nemo have an eye???
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
Hey guys! Check out my new blog post! you can check it out on WU, or you can check it out in the link below! It's the same thing. :-) Don't forget to comment!

WunderGirl12

http://www.booksie.com/young_adult/essay/amaria_c apstone/the-redwood-forest/chapter/1
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
@ washingtonian115

yes it's hard for me to believe it too.. but temperatures are cold enough for BOTH storms to dump more snow...


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Thanks Dr. Masters! :-)
Member Since: January 9, 2011 Posts: 25 Comments: 822
That's for the entry Doctor Masters... awesome satellite picture of Nemo..
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Thanks Jeff. This should be an interesting discussion...
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Um thanks doc.
Member Since: August 14, 2010 Posts: 12 Comments: 22370

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Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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