The most extreme damage from Hurricane Irma may come from huge surges of water pushed onto land by wind

By Tom Yulsman | September 9, 2017 11:24 am
This animation shows an experimental forecast for storm surge between Sunday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. through Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7 a.m. (Source: National Weather Service)

Forecast for storm surge Sunday, Sept. 9 at 1 p.m. through Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 7 a.m. (Source: National Weather Service)

Hurricane Irma is a true monster, exceeding the size of Florida itself, and threatening to flatten structures throughout the state with extreme winds. But perhaps the biggest risk is now posed by storm surge – water pushed up onto land.

The animation above shows an experimental forecast for storm surge from the National Weather Service. It shows the height of water above the land’s surface in feet over time, from 7 a.m. EST today through 7 a.m. on Tuesday. (Sept. 9 – 12, 2017.)

“Storm surge is often the greatest threat to life and property and directly accounts for about half of the deaths associated with tropical cyclones in the United States,” according to the National Hurricane Center.

With Irma now forecast to track up the Gulf coast of Florida, the very biggest risk is along the shore in the southwestern portion of the state, with possible surges exceeding 15 feet there, as the animation above shows. That could prove absolutely devastating. But very significant and potentially deadly storm surge is also likely in many other portions of the Florida coast, and farther north as well.

It is very important to keep in mind that uncertainties in the experimental forecast mean that the actual areas that will experience life-threatening inundation may differ from the areas shown in the animation. The weather service emphasizes that regardless of whether or not you are in the highlighted areas, you should promptly follow evacuation orders and other instructions from local emergency management personnel.

The danger from this storm cannot be overstated.

An animation of high resolution GOES-16 weather satellite images shows extreme Hurricane Irma swirling near Cuba on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (Source: RAMMB Slider)

An animation of high resolution GOES-16 weather satellite images shows extreme Hurricane Irma swirling near Cuba on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (The animation may take some time to fully load after you click on the screenshot above. Source: RAMMB Slider)

As the latest forecast discussion from the National Hurricane Center puts it:

Irma is expected to make landfall in Florida as an extremely dangerous major hurricane, bringing life-threatening wind impacts to much of the state regardless of the exact track of the center. Wind hazards from Irma are also expected to spread northward along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina where a Hurricane Watch has been issued.

Sea level has come up by an average of about eight inches globally since 1880, thanks to human-caused climate change. This is already making storm surge worse than it would otherwise be. And no state is more at risk than Florida. But other many coastal areas are at great risk as well. According to analyses by Climate Central:

  • Global warming has already doubled or tripled the odds of extreme high water events over widespread areas of the U.S. coast.
  • Widespread areas are likely to see storm surges on top of sea level rise reaching at least 4 feet above high tide by 2030, and 5 feet by 2050.
  • Nearly 5 million U.S. residents currently live on land less than 4 feet above high tide, and more than 6 million on land less than 5 feet above.

 

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  • OWilson

    A disturbing statistic:

    “Nearly 5 million U.S. residents currently live on land less than 4 feet above high tide, and more than 6 million on land less than 5 feet above”.

    The question is, how do we deal with that, and start to question those who refuse to move and put other people (their families and rescue workers) at risk?

    Not to mention the cost to rebuild on the same washed out spot!

  • leslie graham

    So it’s down to a Cat 3 already and heading out to sea where it will fizzle out. Miami might get a few showers.
    What a surprise. This whole farce has been a hoax from the start to push the fake global warming agenda and keep the climate hoax gravy train of hundreds of billions of tax dollars going into the back pockets of the ‘scientists’.

    • Andrew Worth

      “So it’s down to a Cat 3 already and heading out to sea where it will fizzle out. Miami might get a few showers.”
      Back up the cat 4, your comment is going to look very stupid in a few hours.

    • JWrenn

      Forget all the global warming stuff. This was a huge storm, and everyone was right to worry that it would cause a lot of damage to Florida. It looks like it still will, but they got damn lucky. Just look at any of the islands it leveled.

      Just because you disagree about something doesn’t mean you can’t look at things that are simply and obviously true and accept them. If you truly don’t believe global warming…then argue against it while accepting things that are obviously true.

    • Tom Yulsman

      How are you feeling about your prediction now, Mr. Weatherman?

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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