Climate change, population growth making more people vulnerable to coastal threats
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Though climate change wasn’t mentioned directly during the first panel session at this year’s Glenn Gerberg Weather and Climate Summit in Breckenridge, it may have been the invisible 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Looking back at the 2012 season, National Hurricane Center director Dr. Rick Knabb said this year’s tropical storms were all about the water, rather than winds. Rainfall and storm surges from storms like Isaac and Debby had significant impacts while the centers were far offshore and even though their winds weren’t particularly strong, Knabb said.
Those impacts are only expected to increase in coming decades, both because of the steady rise in sea level, as well as the fact that an ever-increasing percentage of the American population is living in coastal areas.
“We are just more vulnerable. There are more of us, and we’re moving to more vulnerable locations,” said Chris Strager, advisor for science and service integration with the National Weather Service.
“Already, 53 percent of us live in what we call coastal communities. That is going to be increasing by another 8 percent by 2020,” Strager said.
Based on experiences from this and previous seasons, the National Hurricane Center is working on developing new warnings that could help local broadcast meteorologists and emergency managers beef up preparedness and response to incoming storms, Knabb said.
For starters, the center will start making public five-day genesis forecasts, giving an even earlier warning about tropical systems that are starting to form, even when they’re far offshore.
The new five-day outlook may look similar to the existing tropical weather outlook product, which discusses the probability for individual weather systems to evolve into tropical systems.
“That’s been a 48 hour product … Internally, we’re experimenting with a five-day outlook and doing a little more product development work of putting that into place,” Knabb said, that an experimental version could be in place for the upcoming season. He said it could be an incredibly valuable heads-up for the public and emergency managers.
Second, Knabb said forecasters are developing a new storm surge product, hoping to convey information about water levels in a way that will be meaningful to people living in areas that could be affected.
“We want to show people how deep the water will get where they live and and how far inland it will penetrate,” Knabb said. “We’ve known for a long time storm surge can claim the most lives in one day, and we’ve known for a long time we need to warn people … storm sure has it’s own time and place,” he said, explaining that those dangerous conditions can occur independently of winds and the center of a hurricane landfall.
The storm surge product is probably still a few years away from becoming a reality, Knabb said, explaining that, along with the meteorological component, the agency is focusing on how to best deliver the message.