Monday, September 11, 2017

Weather, Water and Changes

By Beth Sullivan
I am a weather geek.I watch the Weather Channel even when there is nothing exciting going on. But I would imagine with everything that has been happening in the last several weeks, even the most un-interested, non-weather watcher would be engaged and impressed. I am somewhat depressed.
In addition to sending thoughts and prayers to all the people in harm’s way and suffering as a result of such devastating storms, I can’t help but hope it opens the eyes of those who do not believe that things are changing. Even if there is disbelief about the cause of the change, it is impossible to deny that more and more people are being affected by the increased severity of storms, the rising surging water, and the after-effects of disease and displacement. There are too many people living in places that are seriously threatened.
I also tend to think about the effects on wildlife and natural resources. We are so caught up in the trauma to human populations, but what about those species that have lived along the coast forever? Certainly some of them are devastated, but some adapt. For millions of years the sea-land interface has been buffeted by hurricanes and the native wildlife has managed to survive. They hunker down, dig in, swim deep, fly away, but somehow they managed. With hardscapes and highways covering so much coastal territory now, how do many of them survive in this era?
When tons of debris-plastic, metal and chemical-float down and off the land and end up in the ocean, how will the creatures understand how to avoid the dangers? My guess is they won’t. They have a hard enough time with balloons and plastic bags already. What about the petroleum products , household chemicals, and industrial chemicals that are leaching into the waters and may settle in marshes and mud or keep being suspended in the water. In a situation like this, human life will come first, and attention to clean up in wild places will certainly take a back seat.
I walked a few preserves today in the lovely sun of September, feeling almost guilty for enjoying it so much. I enjoyed the Monarchs and birds that will be migrating south in the next weeks. But I began to think about elevations and relationship to storm surge like they are predicting in so many places. In Knox Preserve, there are already places that get flooded when the seasonal storm and full moon tides occur. Much of the preserve is only a few feet above the water. A surge of 5 feet would bring water up and over the walls and across the paths and out to the fields. Ten feet would bring it over the railroad tracks. This is a surge, like a tidal wave, not just a rogue tall wave. It would not retreat quickly.
Most of Knox Preserve is only a few feet above sea level and all the land beyond is of similar elevation. Photograph by Roger Wolfe.

During Sandy, this water was only a few feet higher than a usual high tide.

Imagine a storm surge fifteen feet above the height of the dry land- that's close to the top of these trees.

Even fro the safety of ten feet above sea level, it's easy to see how the railroad will be affected.

Superstorm Sandy

We had a taste of the power of water during Super storm Sandy in 2012. Not even close to a category 4 or 5 hurricane. But at Dodge Paddock, the water surged over the rocks , broke down solid sea walls, deposited debris over the entire area and changed the water dynamics and plant life forever. We are still dealing with the effects.
Natural, expansive salt marshes, like Woolworth Porter and Cottrell Marshes and those at Barn Island, are nature’s shock absorbers. When the waters pile in high and deep, the plants adapt. They buffer the surge and in that way protect those homes and structures that are higher and beyond them. When waters recede, there will be debris, clean-up will be needed, but the natural marshes absorb, detoxify, and gradually revive without too much intervention.

The power of water cannot be underestimated.  Photograph by Binti Ackley. 

When the water recedes and the sun comes out, there is the aftermath to deal with. Photograph by Binti Ackley.
This aerial photo of Woolworth Porter Marsh illustrates where the water can flow and how the marsh can be a buffer for the water. Photograph by David Young.

The landscape in places like Florida has been altered so much already, and the water levels have risen under the ground, that flooding water has no place to go.
I pray these storms make a lot of people think. Things are truly getting worse. The storms are more intense, the sea levels are higher, ocean temperatures are warmer, the populations along the shore are more dense. More people are at risk, and they are displacing the very habitats and ecosystems that are best able to withstand the changes. The long-term effects will be wide reaching.
Go outside today and think about what 10 or 15 feet of water would look like against your home, or against some trees and shrubs in your favorite coastal preserve. Think of the wildlife that calls these places home. Maybe give some thought to how we as communities and as individuals can think to the future to protect what we have and plan for the future.
This is just my opinion. Beth

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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