Research & Innovation

As Hurricane Season 2021 Heats Up, Stevens Experts Answer Common Questions

Davidson Laboratory researchers discuss extreme weather, climate change, forecasting

satellite image of hurricane

The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, which began in June and comes on the heels of a 2020 season that was one of the most active in recorded history, is expected to be another very busy one.

Once again, Stevens researchers and experts are positioned to assist communities with forecasting, preparation and planning.

Another active season, fueled by climate change

The 2020 hurricane season was one for the record books: 30 named storms, including 14 rising to the level of hurricanes (packing winds of 74 mph or higher), with seven of those considered "major" hurricanes, packing winds of 111 mph or higher. It was the fifth-costliest Atlantic hurricane season recorded.

The early portion of the 2021 season has already featured an unusually intense early-season eastern Caribbean hurricane, Elsa — and it won't be the last. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecasts 13 to 20 named storms this summer, including six to ten that could become hurricanes and three to five that could blossom into "major" hurricanes. (For comparison, an average Atlantic hurricane season produces only about six hurricanes, half of them classified as major.)

As the 2021 hurricane season progresses through summer, Stevens ocean engineering professors and Davidson Laboratory researchers Philip Orton and Reza Marsooli answer some common questions about extreme weather and its effects.

Q: Is the weather becoming more extreme?

A: Climate change and extreme weather are in the news almost daily — and it turns out they have a close relationship with one another. A host of recent studies worldwide have confirmed that, indeed, summers are becoming hotter and rainier; storms are becoming stronger; and floods are becoming more frequent and stronger.

Q: Why is this happening?

A: The Earth’s base temperature has warmed by almost two degrees Fahrenheit during the past century alone. That doesn’t sound like much, but it has already been enough to melt and unlock huge quantities of glacial ice at Greenland, Antarctica and other locations.

All this extra meltwater empties directly into the world’s oceans, where it slowly rises against continents and islands. This sea-level rise, driven by a warming and expanding ocean, is one of the primary challenges created by global warming.

Professors Reza Marsooli and Philip Orton
Stevens researchers Reza Marsooli and Philip Orton are leading experts on flood hazards and climate change

The warming atmosphere and ocean also produce increased tropical-region heat and humidity, which help birth and strengthen destructive storm systems such as hurricanes.

New Stevens research published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications has demonstrated that major regional hurricanes like Hurricane Sandy are significantly worsened by the human-driven effects of climate change. In the case of Sandy, the damage is estimated to have been perhaps $8 billion in total.

Q: How does this affect people living near coastlines?

A: If you live in a low-lying coastal area that occasionally flooded during storms in the past, you need to prepare for a vastly different future.

Stevens research conducted in support of the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) recently concluded that several low-lying areas of Queens and Brooklyn, among other New York City boroughs, may begin flooding on a monthly basis within the next 30 years. In fact, coastal areas all along the entire Eastern Seaboard — from Florida to New England — will experience higher coastal flooding during storms.

Additional research findings co-authored by Stevens researchers confirm: hurricane-induced flooding will continue to become more severe, along both the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts, over time due to the effects of climate change.

Q: In 2012, Sandy overwhelmed the metro New York City region and coastal New Jersey. Is Stevens helping to prepare the tri-state region for the next big storm and flood events?

A: Yes. Physical defenses and warning systems are regularly discussed, planned and tested, and Stevens’ historic Davidson Laboratory has long been part of this process in the metropolitan New York region and along the Jersey Shore.

Map with squares
The Stevens Flood Advisory System (SFAS) forecasts and warns of regional flood and storm surge conditions in advance

Davidson Lab experts have long provided flood prediction, modeling and warning systems and services to agencies and clients including NJ Transit (including under a newly renewed contract), the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey and the New York City metropolitan government, as well as to the federal government and the general public.

The Stevens Flood Advisory System (SFAS), a free real-time resource accessible to the public, produces flood forecasts for the New Jersey and Metro New York coastal region. Not only does SFAS provide a central forecast, but it also shows the uncertainty in a given forecast, helping to convey the potential high-end (worst-case) consequences.

Stevens has also operated the New Jersey Coastal Protection Technical Assistance Service since 1992, supporting shore protection efforts with research related to innovative shore protection approaches and technologies such as living shorelines. Davidson Lab researchers assist in the creation of New Jersey’s annual State of the Shore coastal assessment report, as well.

Q: Do students participate in the university's resiliency research?

A: Yes. Stevens undergraduate and graduate students regularly contribute to Stevens’ storm-surge modeling and adaptation research; conduct field research on beach replenishment along the Jersey Shore during summer; and engineer novel, more resilient types of architecture capable of withstanding stronger storms such as the award-winning SU+RE House, which placed first in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, among other projects.

Learn more about Stevens’ resilience and forecasting work at the Davidson Laboratory.