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PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Time to embrace the sump pump. Flooded basements are the future of New England’s winters.

Flooded basements, swollen rivers, and battering surf are the new normal in the climate-change era. Be prepared.

Extreme winter weather in warming world
WATCH: Meteorologist Chris Gloninger shares how New England homeowners can prepare and what's being done to mitigate climate change's impact.

Even if you don’t live in one of these parts of New England, you’ve surely seen the images this winter: extreme flooding at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire, rivers such as Maine’s Kennebec and Rhode Island’s Pawtuxet transforming into raging waterways.

Or maybe you missed the headlines as you bailed water from your basement, or because you were busy working with contractors to repair flood damage. Regardless, it’s been warm, wet, and windy, and your sump pumps may be humming at a constant pace.

Welcome to the new winter in New England.

As a former meteorologist and now a climate scientist at the environmental consulting firm Woods Hole Group, I’m accustomed to people pining for warm days to thaw us out of the winter. But the reality is that our swollen rivers, battering surf, and flooded basements are the new normal in the era of climate change. And we need to be prepared.

The science behind Winter 2.0 is straightforward. In 1873, around the time of the earliest official weather records in Boston, the average winter temperature was 28.6 degrees Fahrenheit, according to data from the National Weather Service. Today, that average has jumped to 33.3 degrees, an increase of 4.7 degrees. For each degree of warming, the atmosphere holds up to 4 percent more moisture.

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This winter, we have witnessed tangible examples of this change: The first half of January was the third wettest on record in Boston, and that came on the heels of 6 inches of rain in December. More moisture in the atmosphere means a higher potential for flooding.

The sea level today is already 5 to 8 inches higher on average than it was in 1900, and the pace of that climb is increasing. If you live on the coast, inches matter — it makes you more vulnerable. A warmer planet means more frequent and powerful storms, with heavy precipitation leading to flooding.

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To understand the impact on all of our communities — not just coastal ones — we need to look to the sky, and, in particular, to “atmospheric rivers” — the freely-flowing plumes of vapor transporting water from the tropics. These are driven by the strength of the low-level jet stream — the winds roughly 2,500 feet above our heads. The stronger the jet stream, the stronger the rivers — and storm systems.

Atmospheric rivers can transport as much as 27 times the amount of water flowing through the Mississippi River. As of this writing, three strong atmospheric rivers have affected New England this winter. With climate change, the number of atmospheric rivers could decrease, but their intensity may increase. Translation: more flooded basements.

In recent years, we have seen a decrease in average snowfall, but we have also seen some blockbuster seasons like 2015, when 110.3 inches of snow fell in Boston. Our bump in atmospheric moisture can also mean big snow events, when temperatures are cold enough. Blasts of cold will continue, but in the climate change era, this typically means another part of the planet is running a fever. Over the long term, cold spells will turn less extreme and frequent.

In addition to the financial burden climate change is imposing nationwide — there were a record number of billion-dollar disasters in the United States last year — New Englanders will see mounting problems from warmer and wetter winters. Already, unpredictable weather is wreaking havoc on the winter sports industry. Warmer temperatures are making New England more hospitable to invasive species. Fish and crustaceans — including lobsters — are migrating north to find colder waters, taking with them our thriving fishing industry and hurting an integral part of coastal New England.

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Infrastructure, including roads and storm-water systems, were designed for a stable climate, but with climate change, most are now far from it. If you have noticed water accumulating near catch basins, there is a decent chance the infrastructure below cannot handle the intensity of the rain above.

If you are a homeowner, you can take preventive measures. Make sure you have a working sump pump with a battery backup. Many storms have been accompanied by damaging winds, and safely removing water from your basement must continue even if power is lost. Flood insurance is most likely required for homes carrying a mortgage in FEMA-designated flood zones, but purchasing flood insurance, even if you are not in a flood zone, is not a bad idea.

The good news is that important work is happening to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of the changing climate. Woods Hole Group works with municipalities to help them better understand the specific impacts of flooding they are vulnerable to. By studying and modeling storm-water systems, water basins and rivers, precipitation patterns, and other data, we help towns and cities identify key infrastructure projects that should be top priorities.

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Along the coast, WHG is working with a group called the Stone Living Lab to protect against climate change, employing nature-based solutions such as cobble berms — mounds of sediment constructed on banks or dunes — to help protect against battering surf and erosion. The team has also installed overland water sensors to be able to better understand the frequency, duration, and magnitude of coastal flooding in Boston.

Taking action can simply be about using your voice. Educate yourself on climate change, especially local issues, and vote for candidates who take the matter most seriously. Attend public meetings where mitigation projects are discussed. Find organizations working to make a difference and help them by volunteering or spreading the word about what they’re doing.

As New Englanders, it is tempting, on cold days, to root for a winter thaw. But wetter, warmer, and windier winters are in the cards — and they’ll come with dire consequences if we’re not prepared.


Chris Gloninger is a senior scientist in climate and risk communication at the Woods Hole Group. He can be found on social media @ChrisGloninger. Send comments to globe@magazine.com.