Storm clouds on horizon
While NOAA reported that the Northeast was 3.8-4.1 degrees above normal this winter, it also reported one of the wettest winters, with 0.92 inches above average rain accumulation. April continued the wet trend, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University. The National Weather Service has predicted above-normal precipitation and temperatures for April through June. So, while most of us in Rhode Island anticipate a chilly, damp spring, we hope for more than 12 days a month of clear skies.
“I didn’t think this spring would be this cold. And we were in a pattern that every two or three days we got rain. It’s good because it’s kept the reservoirs up, but Scituate Reservoir is full,” said Lenny Giuliano, state meteorologist and atmospheric scientist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “My concern is when we get a three-inch-plus rain event. The Scituate Reservoir can handle an inch every three days, but if we get a whopper, it puts more water in the reservoir and they have to let more water out, which floods the Pawtuxet River. It’s not a very deep river, so it could flood low-lying neighborhoods.”
Giuliano has recorded the state’s weather impacts for 27 years, and advises Gov. Gina Raimondo for best practices during snow storms and hurricanes. He confirmed the NOAA reports that each decade since 1930, average temperatures have risen 0.3 degrees and precipitation has increased at a rate of nearly 1 inch. He warned that these small increments of warmer temperatures and additional precipitation might not be much if they occur just once, but they add up to shocking environmental shifts year over year.
“Temperatures are warming, and warm air can hold more moisture than cold air, so that means a warmer world is a wetter world,” Giuliano wrote in his annual climate report. “Rhode Island has already experienced increased rainfall and more frequent heavy precipitation events, with corresponding increases in river and stream flooding. Ocean water temperatures are warming, which can result in storms being stronger and more intense than they otherwise would be. Plus, sea level is rising, which means coastal flooding will occur more frequently and likely will be worse than otherwise would be the case for a given severity of storm. The combination of sea level rise and beach erosion dramatically increases the vulnerability along the coast, which translates into the potential for more damaging storm surge-driven coastal flooding; and development along the coastline places more property and people at risk.”
Janet Freedman is concerned also. As a coastal geologist for the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council, she has evaluated coastal resiliency and flood mitigation, policy, and practice for more than two decades. While she isn’t an expert on jellyfish or Arctic oscillation, she understands quite well what can happen when we repeatedly get more weird weather than our coastal state can handle.
Though Rhode Island hasn’t experienced a really big storm yet this year, she said we are seeing more nuisance flooding, also called high-tide flooding, which happens when we get the type and frequency of precipitation that April brought — it rained every few days, accumulating to nearly 6 inches, which raised the Ocean State’s water table. And when we get a hurricane, she said, the rising sea will make the flood threat dire.
“We are seeing more and more frequent extreme high-tide events,” Freedman said. “We often have a predicted high tide, around a full or new moon, but it’ll actually be a foot or two higher, so low areas like Oakland Beach in Warwick or Market Street in Warren flood.”
Flooding through stormwater infrastructure is another issue, Freedman said. When the sea level is already high, it moves backwards through stormwater systems, so incoming rain has nowhere to go and backs up onto city streets.
“Right now, we’re seeing it several times a year, and we expect to see more,” she said.
The domino effect doesn’t stop there. The state is doing more testing to show how local marine species and waters are impacted by more frequent rainfall. Since so much of Rhode Island’s land is paved or covered by other impervious surfaces, all that water drains directly into Narragansett Bay, dumping contaminants such as fertilizers, petrochemicals, and pet waste into the state’s most important economic resource.
“When I was a kid, we had sprinkles. Now we get torrential downpours that cause flooding on local streets. That has a big impact on water quality,” said Dave Prescott, Save The Bay’s South County coastkeeper. “Bigger precipitation events wash more pollutants into the bay and salt ponds, which compromises the health of marine animals like oysters and flounder, but also our own health, because we swim and kayak all over the place.”
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