Climate Change May Bring '100-Year Storms' Every 3 Years

NASA Goddard Photo and Video/CC BY 2.0

When Hurricane Irene made landfall along the Eastern seaboard last summer, crippling dozens of communities with record flooding, many folks called the storm a '100-year event' -- but a new study suggests that it will be much sooner than century until we see the next one.

A team of scientists from MIT and Princeton University utilized hurricane simulators to determine with what frequency powerful storms could lead to flooding under a variety of climate model projections, and what they found makes all previous usage of the term 'storm of the century' mere hyperbole. According to researchers, climate change's effects on weather systems might mean storms like Hurricane Irene, once considered rare, occur every 3 to 20 years.

From MIT News Office:

To simulate present and future storm activity in the region, the researchers combined four climate models with a specific hurricane model. The combined models generated 45,000 synthetic storms within a 200-kilometer radius of Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan.

They studied each climate model under two scenarios: a “current climate” condition representing 1981 to 2000 and a “future climate” condition reflecting the years 2081 to 2100, a prediction based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s projections of future moderate carbon dioxide output. While there was some variability among the models, the team generally found that the frequency of intense storms would increase due to climate change.

As was proved last year by Hurricane Irene, the floods resulting from such powerful storms are among the chief contributors to property damage and loss of human life, which makes building infrastructure to withstand them all the more important. In the wake of Irene, flooding left hundreds homeless and stranded whole communities as swollen rivers washed away roads and bridges -- some of which had stood for a century's worth of strong weather.

In light of these new findings on the increasing frequency of powerful storms, MIT researcher Ning Lin says that coastal cities must prepare to brace for these once-rare storms:

“When you design your buildings or dams or structures on the coast, you have to know how high your seawall has to be. You have to decide whether to build a seawall to prevent being flooded every 20 years.”

To make matters worse, another study out of Yale warns that climate change isn't the only factor that is likely to lead to deadlier and more expensive storms over the next century. As TreeHugger Mat explained earlier this month, "tropical cyclones will cause more than four times the damage in 2100 than they do today, increasing from $26 billion to $109 billion." The reason? A rapidly increasing human population, accompanies by more and more development along flood-vulnerable coastal regions.

Tags: Global Climate Change