January 22, 2016

Mid-Atlantic Blizzard to Cause Coastal Flooding

Flooding May Cause Property Damage and Power Outages, Likely to Occur More Often in Future

WASHINGTON (January 22, 2016)—The blizzard headed to the mid-Atlantic will bring coastal flooding, which could cause property damage and power outages beyond those caused by wind and heavy snow.

New Jersey and Delaware are predicted to be hit the worst by flooding. Storm surge of between 3 and 5 feet should affect large stretches of the mid-Atlantic coast, and wave heights on the near-shore waters of New Jersey and Delaware will likely build to 15 to 20 feet over the weekend, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At high tide, water levels are predicted to be up to 8 feet in Seaside Heights, Atlantic City and Cape May, N.J., and Lewes and Rehoboth Beach, Del.  

“A number of factors are coming together to create conditions conducive to very serious flooding,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

According to a blog post by Spanger-Siegfried today, those factors include:

•    High winds pushing ocean waters toward the coast, creating storm surge and large waves;
•    A full moon this weekend that makes high tides higher; and
•    The duration of the storm through three high tide cycles.

“When the key factors align like this and set up to pound the coast for an extended period of time we have to expect major flooding and erosion, and take every precaution we can,” said Spanger-Siegfried. “The mid-Atlantic coast is no stranger to coastal flooding, but really, nowhere are we as resilient as we need to be. Each major storm drives that home.”

All of this is playing out on a coast where sea levels are roughly 7 to 11 inches higher than they were just fifty years ago. Sea level is expected to rise another foot in many East Coast locations in the next 30 years.

Meanwhile, UCS released an analysis in October that showed coastal power plants and substations—including in the Delaware Valley and Hampton Roads, Va., in the path of the blizzard—could be exposed to storm surge. If flooded, thousands of customers could lose power.

“Downed wires because of wind, ice and snow are likely to cause a lot of the upcoming power outages, but storm surge and flooding is a growing threat that we need to pay more attention to,” said Julie McNamara, an energy research associate at UCS who co-authored the report.

The report recommended that utilities consider adding natural and artificial buffers, elevating key infrastructure and shutting down or moving facilities away from the coastline when upgrades are cost prohibitive. The report also called on utilities to invest in wind and solar power coupled with energy storage that can provide power even when the electric grid goes down.

The report found that several of the utilities that may be affected by the blizzard have been dedicating insufficient attention to the present-day threat, let alone the significantly escalated future risks driven by rising seas.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.