The Boston Tea Party museum sits right on the edge of the harbor. With rising sea levels and the increasing threat of strong storms, buildings like these are at particular risk of flooding. Photo: Christopher Joyce / NPR

By Christopher Joyce
22 February 2013

(NPR) – Since the drubbing that Superstorm Sandy gave the Northeast in November, there's a new sense of urgency in U.S. coastal cities. Even though scientists can't predict the next big hurricane, they're confident that a warmer climate is likely to make Atlantic storms bigger and cause more flooding.

Cities like Boston are in the bull's-eye.

From atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel's 6th-floor office at MIT, you can look out at Boston and the snow-covered Charles River as it snakes through the city down to the harbor. It's a beautiful place, located where three rivers meet the Atlantic. Unfortunately, a lot of that water wants to get into the city. Here's why:

First, the Atlantic is warming, Emanuel says, and that puts more water vapor up into the air. More water vapor, he says, "means that a given hurricane is likely to rain much more in the future than it does today. That's a big deal because a lot of the deaths and injuries and loss of property, and so forth, in these storms comes from freshwater flooding produced by rain."

Then there's the problem of rising sea levels. Emanuel says a warming climate is likely to change wind patterns that push ocean water and currents around. "And those wind patterns can make a difference locally to how high the sea level is," he says. "So, for example, sea level is forecast to rise faster along the U.S. East Coast than it is globally."

In a big storm, you get three rivers flooding from one side, and an ocean surging in from the other. They meet in Boston Harbor.

"This is something that we're worried about," says Emanuel. "You're producing more water in the rivers, but the water, when it gets down to the sea, doesn't have any place to go because sea level is elevated." [more]

Boston Grapples With The Threat Of Storms And Rising Water

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