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Boston plans for climate change’s promise of more storms. Will it be enough?

An epic nor'easter, a full moon high tide and a rising sea all conspired to swallow up Boston with an icy cold winter flood. What has been a somewhat rare event is believed in the coming years to become much more common due to the effects of climate change. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports on how Boston is preparing and whether it will be sufficient.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, science correspondent Miles O'Brien looks at how conditions during the recent cold snap in the Eastern U.S. sometimes came together in unfamiliar ways, and what one city is doing to try to cope.

    It's the latest installment of Leading Edge, our weekly science series.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Surprising as it seemed, the experts saw it coming, an epic nor'easter, a full moon high tide and a rising sea, all conspiring to swallow up swathes of Boston with an icy cold winter flood.

    It got wall-to-wall live attention on the local news.

  • Man:

    This was the one rescue that they had to actually go through several hours ago here at Atlantic and State.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    I met Nasser Brahim in the same place on the Boston Waterfront near the New England Aquarium.

  • Nasser Brahim:

    Water was probably right around up to here. There was a little bit less than a foot of flooding at the station entrances.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Brahim is a senior climate change planner for the engineering firm Kleinfelder advising the city on ways to defend against the impact of climate change. He says the storm was a classic hundred-year flooding event today, but a much more common occurrence a century from now.

  • Nasser Brahim:

    In the future, when we have three feet of sea level rise, this is going to happen on, let's say, a monthly basis. So this is really a snapshot of what the future looks like if we don't get our emissions under control.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    For New Englanders, the term nor'easter is familiar, but this time a new moniker entered the popular lexicon.

  • Leslie Hudson:

    It's called this bombogenesis, and it's basically a bomb cyclone or a snow hurricane, snow cyclone. There's all kind of names for this thing.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That's Leslie Hudson, the digital meteorologist for the weather app MyRadar.

    Researchers coined the term bomb cyclone in 1980. It refers to a non-tropical winter storm that rapidly intensifies, specifically, air pressure that drops at least 24 millibars in as many hours.

  • Leslie Hudson:

    Most common from October to March. So this bombogenesis making all kinds of headlines across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, as it's expected to dump a lot of snow.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's the result of a collision between warm air over the ocean and cold air from the Arctic. These types of storms are not uncommon, but there is reason to believe climate change may make them more likely to occur in the Northeastern United States.

    Radley Horton is a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

  • Radley Horton:

    It's very early days in this research, but there is some evidence suggesting that loss of sea ice in the Arctic and extreme melting of snow in May and June in the High Arctic may be shifting the climate in a way that's weakening the jet stream and making it more prone to these kind of meanders.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The jet stream is a river of air that flows west to east across North America. It is created by the temperature difference between warm air at the equator and cold air in the Arctic.

    Some scientists suspect that, as climate change has warmed the Arctic, the temperature difference has reduced, causing the jet stream to weaken and wander. This would allow Arctic air to move farther south and linger there, creating the record cold temperatures recently in the U.S.

    The arrival of the warm, moist air from the south provided the missing ingredient to create a bomb cyclone. The other factor at work here in Boston is sea level rise.

  • Radley Horton:

    We have had about eight or nine inches of sea level rise since, say, 1900. That doesn't sound like much, but it's already leading to much more frequent coastal flooding than what you had in the past.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And the sea level will continue to rise. The mid-range estimate is more than three feet by the end of this century, depending on how much humans do to curb the production of greenhouse gases.

  • Radley Horton:

    Even if storms remain the same, we're going to have much more frequent coastal flooding and much more damaging coastal flooding because of that higher baseline.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Human beings have built civilizations during a 7,000-year period of unprecedented climate stability, but since the Industrial Revolution, the rate of climate change has far outstripped the pace of adaptation.

    Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science at MIT.

  • Kerry Emanuel:

    If the sea level rose over the next thousand years by five or six meters, it wouldn't be a problem. We wouldn't even notice.

    The problem, I think, for civilization is the high rate of change of the climate. And the question is, can we adapt without serious consequences?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In Boston, they say they are serious about doing something to build in resilience against the effects of climate change.

  • Austin Blackmon:

    The concern is that we want to make sure that we can get Boston back to normal as quickly as possible.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Austin Blackmon is chief of environment, energy and open space for the city of Boston, 30 percent of which is landfill built to stay just dry above high tides of the 18th and 19th century. So, what does that mean for the 21st century?

  • Austin Blackmon:

    By the end of the century, we're expecting about $80 billion of assets to be in the FEMA floodplain. If you annualize what that risk would be, it would be about $1.4 billion worth of annual damage if we do nothing.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    They have drafted a plan to try and protect this low-lying city. Climate-ready Boston envisions strategically placed flood walls, berms, waterfront green space and elevated streets.

    But cities can only do so much to fight something that is, after all, global in scale.

  • Stephen Flynn:

    I worry sometimes that we are creating islands of resilience in seas of fragility.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Stephen Flynn is director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University.

  • Stephen Flynn:

    Where the real challenge lies is that cities don't control entirely their destinies. They rely on transportation, energy networks, communication networks that sprawl across the country, across borders.

    And so it's so important to have national leadership, in some cases to take this on globally, is because these systems we rely on have to essentially be able to built resilient across multiple jurisdictions.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    In Washington, there is much talk of a huge investment in infrastructure nationwide.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Dramatically reform the nation's badly broken infrastructure.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But in August of 2017, President Trump undid an Obama era order that the federal government account for climate change as it designs public works projects.

  • Stephen Flynn:

    It's an act of recklessness, frankly. We are investing as taxpayers in these assets. We want them to be around their lifetime, their entire life span.

  • President Donald Trump:

    And, by the way, if it doesn't meet environmental safeguards, we are not going to approve it, very simple.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It may be reckless, and it may be human nature. This is where scientists look to the humanities for answers.

  • Kerry Emanuel:

    I ask historians this question. Can we find examples in human history of a whole generation consciously doing something for the benefit of more than one generation downstream that doesn't benefit that generation itself? It's very, very hard to find examples of that. Not sure we ever have.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The experts who saw this storm coming say much more of this lies ahead, a time bomb for our children and grandchildren to defuse.

    In Boston, I'm Miles O'Brien for the PBS NewsHour.

  • Editor’s note:

    Additional footage provided by My Radar, Bryan Healey, Jeff Simpson, ART@DOILOVEYOU, Lisa Sheehan Realtor and WGBH/NOVA

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