Rare Hurricanes Show That Storms Are Unpredictable

Just last week, a rare northeastern Atlantic hurricane (Hurricane Alex) formed – the first in the month of January since 1938. There was another winter hurricane in 1954/1955 (Hurricane Alice), but it formed at the end of December and lasted into January. Hurricane Alex was only the 2nd hurricane ever on record to form in its location (north of 30N, east of 30W).

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Photo credit: @AlexJLamers

The reason for Alex’s rarity is that water in that location is usually not warm enough in the winter (let alone at other times of the year!) to support hurricane activity. However, the ocean temperature was warmer than normal (~2-4°F above average) and the temperature in the upper atmosphere was cooler than normal, supporting the storm’s development.  The unusually warm water was due, at least in part, to global warming that has warmed the earth and its waters (2015 is reportedly the warmest year on record so far).

At the same time that Alex was making headlines, there was also another rare, winter tropical weather system in the Pacific, named Hurricane Pali. Like Alex, Pali broke records being the earliest recorded hurricane to form in that region.

What’s interesting to note is that two of these rare hurricanes – 1938 and 1954/1955 – happened in the same years of three of the worst Massachusetts hurricanes of the 20th century. Is the fact that these rare Atlantic hurricanes occurred in the same years of the worst New England hurricanes simply a coincidence, or are these events somehow related? Could we see a serious hurricane in 2016? Time will only tell…

  • 1954 – Two Category 3 hurricanes hit the Mass. coast.  In late Aug./early Sept., Hurricane Carol brought sustained winds of 80-100 mph and rainfall of 2-6 in. to Mass. Carol made landfall just after high tide – intensifying the impacts and causing major flooding. Storm surge was more than 14 ft. in New Bedford. About a week later, in Sept., Hurricane Edna hit the East Coast. It brought winds of 75-95 mph to eastern Mass. and a 6 ft. storm surge coupled with a rising tide. Severe flooding occurred on the Cape and Islands. Due to erosion caused by Hurricane Carol only days earlier, the impacts to these areas were compounded. Rainfall of about 3-6 in. fell, and again, since the ground was saturated by Carol, the impacts of rainfall were compounded and serious flooding occurred in Mass.
  • 1938 – The ‘Great New England Hurricane of 1938’ was perhaps the worst storm of the century. In Sept., it brought devastating winds (strongest winds ever for the region: 121 mph sustained winds with gusts of 186 mph!). Storm surge was substantial, causing 18-25 ft. tides on Cape Cod. Parts of Falmouth and New Bedford saw 8 ft. of floodwater. Across New England, coastal communities were destroyed, 5,900 boats were destroyed or damaged, and about 6,000 commercial fishing vessels were destroyed or damaged. More than 560 fatalities and 1,700 injuries occurred in southern New England.
  • 2016 – ?

The moral of the story is that storms are highly unpredictable. Relying only on what’s happened in the past is not necessarily good preparation for the future. Unexpected storm events can, and will, happen. Furthermore, considering that two “100-year” storms occurred back-to-back further proves this point.

Despite major meteorological advancements, it’s still incredibly difficult to accurately predict storms and weather conditions today. Global warming and resulting climate change can make predicting weather even more difficult. Meteorologists predict weather by using observations and patterns over time; however, climate change is altering these patterns and scientists will be faced with new, unexpected patterns.

Pilgrim Nuclear

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station on the shore of Cape Cod Bay did not exist in 1954/55 or 1938, but if it had, it would have potentially been in some serious trouble. The damage our region experienced could have been a lot worse if Pilgrim experienced flooded cooling pumps or if there would have been nuclear waste containers stored close to shore like there is today.

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Time and time again, we have raised the concerns about Pilgrim’s (and its nuclear waste storage containers/casks) precarious location – well within reach of storms, flooding and surge, sea level rise, and salt water degradation. Now that Pilgrim will begin decommissioning no later than June 2019, it’s more important than ever for regulators to understand these serious risks and require changes at Pilgrim. Pilgrim’s vulnerability to coastal hazards will cause increasing challenges for site cleanup during decommissioning and a potential source of further radioactive waste contamination from waste storage areas, long after shutdown.

Earlier this week we issued a report, Analysis of AREVA Flood Hazard Re-Evaluation Report for Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, which outlines some ways that Entergy (Pilgrim’s owner and operator) underestimates flooding risks at Pilgrim by using outdated data, and not fully considering future risk estimates for rainfall and sea level rise. This is important since the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will not implement additional regulatory actions (e.g., requiring changes to systems) if flooding potential is underestimated.

This Weekend’s Storm

Winter Storm Jonas is headed our way this weekend. While this storm won’t be the worst we’ve seen in Massachusetts, it could still impact southeastern part of the state with up to 4-8 in. of snow, heavy northeast winds (expected to be gusts 40-50 mph; near gale force at times), storm surge (1.5-2.5 ft. of surge is expected for Cape Cod – bad, but not worst case), flooding, and erosion. We are right on the edge of the storm, meaning that the exact numbers will likely change – for better or worse; however, this storm will undoubtedly have some nasty impacts on our area.

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We anticipate that the Sunday morning (11AM) tide will bring the highest storm surge, much like Winter Storm Juno in Jan. 2015. However, the predicted tides are slightly higher this year—but whether the wind will reach the ferocity of Juno remains to be seen.

After Juno (and other storm related problems), Entergy is supposed to be enhancing storm procedures and make switchyard physical improvements so they don’t keep losing offsite power during storms. As an interim fix, Entergy’s storm procedures now require Pilgrim to shutdown preemptively, before a severe winter storm hits.

While many questions still surround these new procedures (e.g., what are the storm criteria that require preemptive shutdown? who makes the call – Entergy or the NRC?), it’s possible that Entergy will take Pilgrim offline if this weekend’s forecast takes a turn for the worst.  It also raises the question whether Pilgrim’s meteorological tower, found to be malfunctioning in October 2015 by an NRC inspection, is properly working now.**

The cause for most concern is the flooding potential this weekend. Northeast winds combined with high tides around 11pm on Saturday and 11am on Sunday is predicted to lead to some splashover and moderate coastal flooding – especially along the northeast facing coasts of Plymouth County and the Cape.

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*It’s important to remember that the tidal elevations from the Plymouth Harbor Station are referenced to “Mean Low Low Water” and are not equivalent to the same elevations on land.  But when you add a foot or more of surge, and understand that waves can be 6 to 15 or so feet high on top of the surge in this type of storm—then we can understand how vulnerable Pilgrim and other properties along the coast can be. Learn more here >>

Only time will tell whether Pilgrim, and its nuclear waste storage areas, will safely withstand Winter Storm Jonas without any issues or emergency shutdowns. According to one news outlet, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be “closely monitoring” nuclear power stations in the storm’s path beginning late Friday.  Read the article >> Aside from Pilgrim, there will be several other plants at risk (Salem and Hope Creek in NJ; Millstone in CT for example).

 

**Update: The new 160 ft replacement tower is reportedly operational now, but the primary 220 ft tower is still down due to a missing part that is not expected to arrive until mid-February.