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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

UNC: North Carolina Coastal Flooding Is Worsening With Climate Change, Population Growth

A historic 120-year-old data set is allowing researchers to confirm what data modeling systems have been predicting: climate change is increasing precipitation events like hurricanes, tropical storms and floods.

Researchers analyzed a continuous record — kept since 1898 — of tropical cyclone landfalls and rainfall associated with coastal North Carolina storms. They found that six of the seven highest precipitation events in that record have occurred within the last 20 years.

“North Carolina has one of the highest impact zones of tropical cyclones in the world, and we have these carefully kept records that shows us the last 20 years of precipitation events have been off the charts,” said Dr. Hans Paerl, Kenan Professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Dr. Paerl is lead author on the paper, “Recent increase in catastrophic tropical cyclone flooding in coastal North Carolina, USA: Long-term observations suggest a regime shift,” published July 23 in Nature Research’s Scientific Reports.

Three storms in the past 20 years – hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Florence – resulted in abnormally large floods. The probability of these three flooding events occurring in such a short time period is 2 percent, according to the study.

This frequency suggests that “three extreme floods resulting from high rainfall tropical cyclone events in the past 20 years is a consequence of the increased moisture carrying capacity of tropical cyclones due to the warming climate,” the study said.

In addition to the growing number of storms and floods, an increasing global population is compounding the problem by driving up emissions of greenhouse gases.

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