URI expert says RI should be ready for bigger storms
University of Rhode Island Oceanography professor Isaac Ginis was busy last week doing what he always does when a major storm like Hurricane Dorian is churning its way across the Atlantic toward a potential landfall.
Ginis was working with different computer models to weigh their accuracy in predicting the path Dorian might take on its approach to the coast of Florida and where it might head next.
“I’m just looking at different forecasts and models and just trying to see what might potentially happen,” Ginis, a professor for URI’s graduate school of oceanography, explained.
Unfortunately for the state of Florida, the predictions being generated by the programs used by agencies like the National Hurricane Center, did not suggest a storm with minimal impacts and rather one that was still intensifying.
“So there are two things that are potentially concerning,” Ginis said. “One is that the storm is intensifying and the reason it is getting more intense is because it moves over very warm water,” he said.
Hurricanes draw energy from the water and the higher the temperature of the water, then the more energy they get, he said.
“The temperature now is around 85 degrees in the area Dorian is moving through and so that provides conditions that are very conducive for storms to intensify,” Ginis explained.
Ginis’ second concern was that the storm is predicted to slow down in its track toward land as it nears the coast of Florida.
“Slowing the storm means that it would have a much more significant impact because the strong wind will be blowing for a longer period of time,” Ginis explained. All the structures in the storm’s path would in turn be loaded with very strong winds for a longer period of time, he explained.
“The longer the wind blows, strong winds, the more damage they make,” he said.
The storm’s pace also affects coastal flooding due to the storm surge causing more significant damage from flooding the longer the storm stays in the same place.
“So the duration of the wind, not only the strength, is also a big factor in the damage that the storm could create,” Ginis said.
An example of the impact a slow moving storm can have was apparent in Hurricane Florence’s strike on North Carolina last year, Ginis offered.
“Actually it wasn’t a very strong storm but it produced an enormous amount of rain and flooded many places away from the shore because of the river flooding. And so that’s another factor when a storm slows down, in addition to the wind damage and coastal flooding, you can also get rainfall and inland flooding.
That message can be an important for Rhode Islanders because of the impact heavy rains could have on the state’s low lying areas or river watersheds as has been demonstrated with past hurricanes and Nor’easters threatening the New England coast.
It was still too soon as the weekend approached to know if Dorian might have a future impact on Rhode Island and its New England neighbors, but Ginis suggested the data available to that point indicated that the storm did deserve watching.
“It is forecast that the storm will turn to the north after making landfall but we’ll see if that happens,” he said.
“There are some computer models now that show maybe that the turn north might happen before the center crosses the coastline in Florida,” he said.
If that happens, Ginis said the storm would be able to maintain “its structure and intensity.”
Typically, when storms come ashore, “they die rather quickly and disintegrate because they are deprived the energy they get from the ocean,” he said.
But if they stay over the water, they then have something to feed from, and if Dorian continues to stay over the water and makes a right turn, “then who knows where it will go next,” Ginis said.
Ginis’ department and URI’s Department of Marine Affairs and the URI Coastal Resources Center are currently completing a project funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security that could help the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency (RIEMA), and local emergency management agencies and first responders better understand what a particular hurricane or Nor’easter could wreak in the state when extreme weather does arrive here.
“It is essentially computer programs that they could use to know more precisely, I guess, more accurately, the hazards,” Ginis said.
The programs could provide information on what the coastal inundation and inland inundation might be from a particular storm, he noted.
“But we also do the impact analysis, so we are trying to connect the hazard information with potential damage that would be made on critical infrastructure throughout the state, including wastewater treatment facilities, bridges, health facilities like hospitals and nursing homes, the power grid and so forth,” Ginis said.
The programs would be tools that the agencies URI is working with on the project, RIEMA, the R.I. Department of Health, the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, and the R.I.
Department of Transportation could use to make preparations for the impact scenarios resulting from a severe storm.
“So we’re hoping that the tools that we’re developing, these modeling tools, will be very helpful,” he said.
Ginis said URI is planning a demonstration of the new impact prediction programs for state officials next spring.
As for whether climate change might be generating more impacts from hurricanes and severe storms than in the past, Ginis said studies and papers being published by scientists and other universities and organizations such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA suggest that may be true.
“There are some results of these studies that show we will have more rain, because as the ocean gets warmer, it evaporates more and it provides more moisture into the atmosphere,” Ginis said.
“When the air gets warmer, it can hold more moisture and that will result in more rain. So some estimates show that we are already seeing actual impacts of climate change on current hurricanes,” he said.
Hurricane Harvey, one of the storms of the 2017 hurricane season, produced almost 60 inches of water over Houston, Ginis noted.
The high level of rain from Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, occurred when it stalled over Texas and eventually spun back into the sea for a second blow in Louisiana, where it went inland and dissipated.
“So scientists believe that there is already a contribution of global warming to increased rainfall and that most likely will continue,” Ginis said.
“It’s just based on the laws of physics. Some people are asking Cwell how do you know.’ We just know the laws of physics,” Ginis said.
Rhode Islanders need to think about storm preparations even now, Ginis noted, and remember that the state has suffered significant damage from Atlantic hurricanes in the past.
One of the big storms of the past, Hurricane Carol, arrived on Aug. 30, 1 54, and caused 65 deaths in New England while also claiming the title of the most damage causing hurricane on record at the time.
Carol hit Rhode Island now 65 years ago, but still serves as a reminder of the importance of storm preparation, according to Ginis.
A combination of two smaller storms passing through New England in 1 55, resulted in devastating floods in the Blackstone 9alley and prompted the construction of Woonsocket’s Blackstone River flood control system in the years that followed.
“We are long overdue, so one of messages is that the people of Rhode Island need to be prepared for potentially significant hurricane impacts,” Ginis said.