Home Commentary Hurricane Season Could Bring More Floods

Hurricane Season Could Bring More Floods

Vermont’s coming together following the recent flood and related events displays a community spirit and resolve that is, to say the least, impressive. We also need to build back smarter and higher, because an increased likelihood of further floods is built into the drastic climate changes that engulf planet Earth.

While I have heard some speculation that we might get another flood in as little as five years, conditions exist that might deliver one or more drastic floods this year. And while I type this in early August, wet conditions persist, keeping the soil saturated.

Some bad climate news seems too far away to bother Vermont, but is not. Humanity faces unprecedented changes in temperature, global wind and ocean current patterns, drought and flood events, and lethal temperatures. Current conditions that especially concern me, and should concern all Vermonters, are temperatures in the ocean waters near the Everglades and Florida Keys exceeding 97 degrees Fahrenheit*. The ocean is a kind of heat battery; it stores concentrated thermal energy and moves it around. The appetite of water, especially salt water, to absorb energy as heat is very great. The oceans have absorbed most of the increased solar energy captured by the atmospheric increase of carbon compounds and other relevant pollutants. (More than melting glaciers, warming of ocean water is a greater cause of sea level rises. Heating water expands.) 

One way that oceans move energy is by transferring it to hurricanes and typhoons, as well as evaporating countless tons of seawater. Whether a hurricane starts off the coast of Africa, as many do, or in the Caribbean, if one passes through the Gulf of Mexico, the storm is on a path that sometimes allows it to retain enough strength to reach our part of the world. As a result of global warming, the odds are great that such storms will have more energy, in the form of stronger winds and more evaporated water, than formerly was normal.

While a hurricane passes over the Gulf, it picks up even more energy and water. Because the Gulf, being relatively shallow, is warmer than the nearby Atlantic Ocean, it contributes more energy to the atmosphere. So far, climate change has not much affected the number of hurricanes reaching the U.S. mainland. But, statistically, it has made them a hell of a lot more powerful and carried more water and strong winds farther and farther inland. Residual hurricanes are not unknown visitors to Vermont. Irene did so in the relatively recent past. 

Late August through October is the season with the most hurricanes. Because of the strong possibility that 2023 hurricanes making landfall in the Gulf will be especially powerful and convey immense amounts of water northward, chances are heightened that one or two will reach our region with strong winds and downpours. Such a storm may even retain hurricane strength.

Hurricanes also sometimes spawn tornadoes. Tornados cover far less territory than hurricanes, but they are vastly more destructive over their paths. Alas, there is nothing to do to protect against tornados except construct an underground shelter you can reach at a moment’s notice. So far, hurricanes have been relatively rare in Vermont. 

A few days after the recent storm that flooded Vermont abated, an NPR news report cited ocean temperatures in excess of 97 degrees F in the offshore waters of Everglades National Park. This hot water can be fuel for hurricanes that reach deep into the continent.

Because hurricanes deliver destructive winds as well as copious downpours, we had best prepare for the worst, while hoping for the best.

*I wrote the above concern in mid July. A week later, the Atmospheric Administration data showed ocean temperatures in the same region about 9 degrees cooler than the NPR report. Meanwhile, a report in the July 21 issue of The Guardian cited a temperature reading in an Everglades National Park buoy of more than 101 degrees F. An NPR report on July 26 put water temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F in the Atlantic waters off the east coast of Florida. In early August, water temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F were reported off the south Florida Atlantic coast. While such ocean temperatures are implicated in horrific harm to sea life from corals to manatees to fish, the direct threat to Vermont’s welfare is the increased probability of hurricanes with strong winds and downpours reaching us, possibly still at hurricane strength.

Dan Hemenway is a retired international permaculture design teacher and an environmentalist living in Montpelier.