Research & Innovation

As Hurricane Season 2020 Begins, Stevens Scientists Answer Questions About Extreme Weather, Climate Change

Season is expected to bring three to six major hurricanes; Davidson Lab researchers answer some FAQs

satellite image of hurricane

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which begins June 1, is expected to be a major event. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecasts 13 to 19 named storms this summer — including six to ten that could become hurricanes, packing winds of 74 mph or higher, and three to six major hurricanes packing winds of 111 mph or higher. NOAA says these forecasts have 70% confidence. (The average Atlantic hurricane season produces six hurricanes, half of them major.)

As the season approaches, 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. Sea level rise is one of the primary challenges created by global warming. The warming atmosphere also warms the ocean, providing increased tropical heat and humidity that help birth and strengthen destructive storm systems known as hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones.

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.

Recent Stevens research in support of the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) has 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. Coastal areas along the entire Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to New England, would experience higher coastal flooding during storms.

In 2019, Stevens published additional research in Nature Communications confirming that hurricane-induced flooding would become more severe along both the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts due to the effects of climate change.

Q: In 2012, Hurricane Sandy overwhelmed the metro New York City region and coastal New Jersey. How will Stevens help prepare for the next big storm or flood?

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

The Davidson Lab’s experts have provided flood prediction, modeling and warning systems and services to agencies and clients including NJ Transit, the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey and New York City, for example, 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.

In addition, Stevens has 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. The Lab assists in the creation of New Jersey’s annual State of the Shore coastal assessment report.

Q: What are students doing in these areas?

A: Working with faculty, Stevens undergraduate and graduate students 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 in 2015.

Q: Where can I learn more about these challenges and the ways in which Stevens contributes to solving them?

A: You can find much more about Stevens’ resilience and forecasting work on Davidson Laboratory’s website.

Professors Reza Marsooli and Philip Orton

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