When it comes to flooding and other coastal destruction, northeasters — not hurricanes — are the greater threat

By Pam George
From the October 2017 issue

FeatureNoreasters Weathering the Storms - Delaware Beach LifeHurricanes Harvey and Irma have left a monstrous mark on this year’s hurricane season, and the formation of tropical storms is still the star of Weather Channel footage. But those storms, even if they become hurricanes, account for only 20 percent to 25 percent of the major coastal flooding events in the mid-Atlantic states, according to Dan Leathers, the Delaware state climatologist. The coast has more to fear from northeasters — non-tropical storms that create the lion’s share of flooding in our area.

“We call them ‘nagging northeasters,’” says Tony Pratt, shoreline and waterway management administrator for the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “They’re the ones that last two, three, four or five tide cycles, as opposed to a hurricane, which passes through so quickly we usually have one tide to worry about. A nagging northeaster just sits and spins northeast winds for days on end.”

Northeasters often occur during shoulder season months, when there is a “combative zone” between cold air to the north and warm air to the south, he says. But these storms can happen at any time. A blizzard in late January 2016, for example, caused hurricane-force winds and closed the Indian River Inlet Bridge. A storm in July closed the beaches.

Given concerns about climate change and rising sea levels, one wonders if northeasters will increase in both frequency and intensity. Indeed, could they change the coast as we know it? The answer is rooted in climatology, geography and development.

 

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