Fire & Flood: A Warning for Extreme Weather in New England

MA coastal town in winter © Kasia Lynch
© Kasia Lynch

By Daniel Brown
Climate Change Program Coordinator

The past year saw record-breaking extreme weather across the country. Wildfires in Northern California spread faster than any on record in the region, with one of the deadliest fires in the state’s history burning the area of a football field every three seconds. Hurricane Irma, in many ways, was the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, and Hurricane Harvey dumped an incomprehensible 60 inches of rain on parts of Texas in one week. (That’s about 14 percent more precipitation than what falls on Boston in an entire year.)

We can’t say that any single weather event is caused by climate change, but when viewed together, these events confirm patterns that climate models have projected for decades. We will likely see more intense storms, greater impacts in coastal areas, and often drier summers.

What we can say is that climate change amplified the impact of these events. Coastal flooding from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was worse than it would have been without climate change because sea levels are higher. Warmer ocean temperatures fuel more powerful storms and heavier precipitation. A longer summer, driven by warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt, leaves forests dry and vulnerable to fire for a longer period of the year.

Impact on New England

The changes in climate associated with these major recent weather events could lead to similar challenges in New England. Roughly speaking, the atmosphere can hold about four percent more moisture for every 1°F of warming. With warmer temperatures, there is more evaporation and more water aloft for precipitation.

Just as hurricanes muster more destructive energy from warmer ocean surface waters, so do nor’easters. Storms in New England could be amplified by warmer waters off our coast. In fact, the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster in recent years than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, and many studies suggest warmer waters may make their way farther north in the future.

The forest fires out west are also a reminder of dangers we could face from the drier summer conditions. Our growing season is already longer than in the past, and we’ll likely see much longer, drier summers in the future. A warmer climate could also mean more winters without substantial snowfall in Boston by the end of the century. With hotter, drier summers and less snow sticking around into the spring, there is an even greater risk of drought and fire in the late summer.

Preparing for the Impact

For more than a century, we have built our infrastructure to withstand rare but catastrophic events. But as the climate changes, these once-rare events are occurring more frequently, and in some cases, they may become relatively common. Even if we could engineer structures that resist these weather events, those solutions would eventually become obsolete or inadequate. We can no longer prepare for the static “new normal”; we need to prepare for a dynamic “next normal.”

One of the best ways to prepare for extreme weather events is to preserve open, natural spaces. It not only protects wildlife, but also safeguards the places we hold dear. Preserving existing salt marshes and giving them room to migrate inland with sea level rise can create an energy-absorbing shield from storm surge and erosion. Preserving forested lands in urban areas helps soak up water, reducing sudden flows of runoff that lead to flash floods during heavy rains.

Many groups across the Commonwealth are exploring these strategies now. Mass Audubon and others are working with the state to help cities and towns prepare for extreme weather driven by climate change. Our Shaping the Future of Your Community program is improving how we manage water supplies and protect ourselves from hazards in a world where extreme weather is becoming a greater threat.

While the outlook can be frightening and the challenge can seem daunting, we can look to nature for real answers.

Learn more about Mass Audubon’s efforts to prepare for, and prevent, the impacts of climate change.

Our Climate Change Work