Feb 282012
 
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The researchers ran a total of 45,000 storm simulations

 
As the Earth’s climate changes, the worst inundations from hurricanes and tropical storms could become far more common in low-lying coastal areas, a new study suggests. Researchers from Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that regions such as the New York City metropolitan area that currently experience a disastrous flood every century could instead become submerged every one or two decades.

The researchers report in the journal Nature Climate Change that projected increases in sea level and storm intensity brought on by climate change would make devastating storm surges — the deadly and destructive mass of water pushed inland by large storms — more frequent. Using various global climate models, the team developed a simulation tool that can predict the severity of future flooding an area can expect.

The researchers used New York City as a test case and found that with fiercer storms and a 3-foot rise in sea level due to climate change, “100-year floods” — a depth of roughly 5.7 feet above tide level that occurs roughly once a century — could more likely occur every three to 20 years. What today are New York City’s “500-year floods” — or waters that reach more than 9 feet deep — could, with climate change, occur every 25 to 240 years, the researchers wrote.

The research is not only the first to examine the future intensity of storm surges, but also to offer a tool for estimating an area’s vulnerability, said co-author Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton.

“Coastal managers in cities like New York make daily decisions about costly infrastructure that would be affected by such storms. They need a reliable indicator of the risk,” he said.

“Our modeling approach is designed as a key step in this direction,” Oppenheimer said. “As the world warms, risks will increase across a variety of fronts, and the threat to coastal infrastructure in the face of an already-rising sea level and potentially stronger hurricanes could be one of the most costly unless we are able to anticipate and reduce vulnerability.”

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