Winter Storm Grayson caused historic flooding in coastal areas. Highest ever recorded tide since 1921 in Boston

On January 4th, 2018 the first snow storm of the year, Grayson hit New England with immense power. It developed wind gusts of up to 50 mph and dumped snow in the amounts of 8 – 12 inches along the New England coastline (up to 22” were recorded near Plymouth, Maine).

Two things are striking about this winter storm.

Firstly, Grayson was one of the most intense western Atlantic winter storms impacting the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Maine. Its intensity brought snowfall rates of up to 3 inches per hour in Providence, RI. Furthermore, it developed some of the coldest wind chills and Blizzard conditions with near zero visibility e.g. near Boston Logan airport (www. weather.com).

Secondly, Grayson doubled its strong impacts due to the timing of the tides. During Hurricane Sandy, Boston and other coastal towns in Massachusetts were spared from the worst as the Hurricane hit during low tide - whereas New York City was slammed by Sandy at high tide. This time, the winter storm hit Boston and surrounding communities at high tide causing significant damaging storm surges.

NOAA station Boston measured the highest tide ever recorded since 1921 on 01/04/18. A new record tide of 15.1’ (MLLW) replaces the former highest recorded tide measured during the Blizzard of 1978 (14.99’) (https://twitter.com/NWSBoston).

Coastal areas were slammed by the powerful storm surges. Icy waves overtopped seawalls and flooded piers, e.g. at Boston Long Wharf. Several coastal residential areas, offices, and parks were flooded. Boston’s Fort Point and Seaport District along with other low lying coastal communities such as in Dorchester or Winthrop were partly flooded. Winthrop reports 75 homes with flooded first floors and compromised utilities (weather.com). Power outages were frequent. Streets turned into icy rivers. Several cars were flooded and people had to be rescued. Furthermore, the Aquarium MBTA station was flooded and remains closed.

A storms’ power or intensity can be measured by its atmospheric pressure drop. Grayson - also called “the bomb” - underwent a process called “bombogenesis”. This is a drop in atmospheric pressure of 24 millibars or more in 24 hours. This atmospheric pressure drop may be related to warmer than usual ocean temperatures. 2017 has already produced a series of the most powerful hurricanes, which have been linked to the warming water temperatures (https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov).

Regardless of the reasons for Grayson’s powerful impacts, we have to start thinking more proactively. While Bostonians experienced a stroke of luck during Hurricane Sandy, the recent events have told us a lesson in placing our bets on chance. It is time to make more resilient choices. We should start developing better emergency plans and adapting our built environment for major storm events to prevent events such as Grayson from turning into catastrophes. Implementing more comprehensive emergency plans and stronger regulations for building districts in the flood zones may be a good starting point.

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