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Climate change, luck spared Cape from deadly rains that punished much of New England

 The aftermath of Monday and Tuesday's flooding on Second Street in Barre City.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
The aftermath of Monday and Tuesday's flooding on Second Street in Barre City, Vermont.

Early this month, a storm that devastated Northeast states, causing fatal flooding in New York and Vermont, entirely missed Cape Cod largely due to a combination of climate change and luck, experts say.

The waves in the jet streams that once pushed storms over multiple regions, evenly spreading rainfall, now stay stationary over one spot, which can maximize the damage across a smaller region. More heavy rains – another consequence of global warming – and less movement of storms are more likely to continue into the future.

“What the general rise in temperature does is put more water vapor in the atmosphere,” said Raymond Schmitt, the president of Salient Predictions, a weather forecast company. “And so with the general warming of the atmosphere, you have this intensification of the water cycle.“

Dr. Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, agreed, saying that the storm didn’t come from climate change, but was worsened by it.

“Climate change doesn't cause these extreme events, climate change makes them worse,” she said. “There's always been storms. There's always been heatwaves. There’s always been droughts. There's always been forest fires. Climate change is making these things worse.”

Still, Schmitt said, even if the storm had planted itself over Cape Cod, the topography in the region likely would have protected it.

“We’re a little bit safer from river flooding because we don't have any strong, big rivers and we’re also pretty flat,” Schmitt said. “I think a lot of what happened in Vermont is because it's a pretty mountainous, rugged state.”

The storm unloaded as much as 9 inches of rain onto Vermont, with Plymouth, Vermont being most affected at 9.05 inches. The storm devastated towns across the state, ruining thousands of homes and causing first responders to perform more than 100 rescues.

For many, the storms were eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Irene, which devastated Vermont in 2011. Still, experts warn that major storms are expected to hit the Cape more frequently in the coming decades, so residents must stay vigilant.

Dave DeConto, Sandwich’s natural resources director, said that much of the management of these storms comes down to the residents themselves.

“They really need to educate themselves with what they need to do to prepare. … Are they in a flood risk? Where do you seek shelter? Who do you contact? … That’s my fear,” DeConto said, “that the average citizen does not do that.”

Deconto urged residents to keep their homes updated with emergency batteries, water sources, food, and flashlights.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.
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