Rhode Island Shows Link Between Climate Change and Weather

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — It’s no secret that climate change and unchecked development are causing problems for the Ocean State. But David Vallee, the keynote speaker at the recent 2019 Land & Water Conservation Summit, draws a clear link between the altered global climate and new weather norms in Rhode Island, which have exposed inadequate infrastructure and shortsighted development.

“It’s not just the climate. It’s how we’ve used the land,” Vallee said at the March 9 event.

A lifelong Rhode Island resident, Vallee is the hydrologist-in-charge for the National Weather Service at the Northeast River Forecast Center in Norton, Mass. His job is to study the atmosphere and weather impacts on ground and water systems. He informs the federal weather system about heavy rain and flooding across New York and New England.

“If Mother Nature changes the way she rains on us, trust me, I’m going to know it first,” Vallee said.

After the severe flooding of southeastern New England in 2010, Vallee realized that climate change had dramatically altered how rivers and streams are reacting to precipitation. All of his forecasting models had to change.

“We’ve had enough tweaking of our atmosphere due to a warming climate that we’ve got ourselves a bit of an issue,” he said.

Climate change has altered the jet stream, causing larger, more frequent and intense, multi-day rain storms, Vallee explained. Since 1930, single-day flooding events in Rhode Island have increased from seven to 15. Last year there were 22.

This severe weather worsens flooding in communities with large riverine areas such as Cranston and West Warwick. Malls and wastewater treatment facilities built in theses low-lying zones are now flooding. Urban areas experience more flash flooding because stormwater systems weren’t designed to manage the heavier rainfall.

The Scituate Reservoir is a de facto flood-control system but was never designed for managing water flow. It was built to reach capacity in June but is now filling in March and this year reached its limit in January, according to Vallee.

Longer, less frequent droughts have been replaced by flash droughts that occur more often and in between intense phases of precipitation and flooding in late fall and early spring. The extremes in rainfall and weather are hurting agriculture and allowing less desirable plants and insects to endure, Vallee said.

Coastal flooding is worse because of sea-level rise and erosion, especially from large multi-day storms. Lunar tides are causing more nuisance flooding of streets and parking lots.

“We are not built for this. We aren’t designed for it,” Vallee said.

He offered local examples of land protection and engineered solutions to manage flooding and stormwater but said they need greater support from state and municipal leaders.

“We all want the economy to boom but there’s better and smarter ways to do this,” he said.