New report shows surge in New England storms

Donna Kulpa

In October 2005, Taunton residents were praying that the rain would hold off long enough to fix the Whittenton Dam before it collapsed.

But many were unaware that the heavy rain responsible for the dam crisis two years ago was part of a growing trend in increased frequency of intense periods of precipitation due to global warming.

A new report by the non-profit group, Environment Massachusetts, finds that New England ranks at the top of the list nationwide for the largest increase in the frequency of storms with heavy precipitation. Storms with extreme precipitation increased in frequency by 61 percent in New England from 1948 to 2006. The state and local increases are even higher.

"The 100-year storm may be becoming a five-minute event nowadays," said Bill Napolitano of the Southeastern Regional Planning Economic Development District, who studies the Taunton River.

This week, Environment Massachusetts - formerly, the environmental arm of MASSPIRG which split from the main group in February 2007 - released the report, titled, "When It Rains, It Pours" in Taunton. The report was presented by Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, along with a statement from Congressman Barney Frank, D-MA, in support of Pacheco's Global Warming Bill. The bill, now in the Massachusetts legislature, is intended to address carbon emissions creating global warming.

The study documents data collected from the Taunton-based weather station as part of 1,000 weather stations across the nation's data as the basis of conclusions regarding the region's weather trends.

In part, the report underscores concern about area bridges and dams which are inadequate to hold off a torrential flood.

According to the report, global warming increases the intensity of precipitation both by causing water to evaporate faster, and enabling the atmosphere to hold more water vapor by increasing air temperature, making clouds richer with moisture.

SRPEDD Executive Director Steve Smith noted that the recently updated Storm Surge map showed towns like Wareham and Marion are struggling to plan for extra costs due to weather-related events that cause flooding and property damage.

"In the legislature, we are getting more and more calls from people whose insurance is not being renewed or cancelled. We may be having to create an insurance fund for at risk property owners similar to one that exists for the auto insurance industry. This diverts funds from areas like education," said Pacheco.

The report will be used to create maps for the area of impact in the future as well as for use in studies for infrastructure considerations due to the effects of damage due to the effect of climate.

In regard to potential changes in the law at state and federal level regarding global warming, Pacheco cautioned communities that are seeking new generating plants to wait until they know what restrictions are going to be called for before signing agreements with costly consultants. Taunton Municipal Lighting Plant has been advocating for a new generating plant based on traditional technology.

"I think it's important to know what the rules are before you go on the playing field," said Pacheco.

By Earth Day 2008, advocates are hoping that legislation is enacted in Massachusetts that reduces greenhouse gases in conjunction with an initiative signed by Gov. Deval Patrick. An Energy Bill is enacted that mandates net metering (the ability of utilities to buy back electricity produced from alternate sources) and looking at the need for using native energy as resources rather than traditional generation.


Changes in extreme precipitation frequency 1948-2006

New England: 61 percent

Massachusetts: 67 percent

Boston metropolitan area: 72 percent

Providence, RI metropolitan area: 88 percent

New York City metropolitan area: 37 percent

Hartford, CT metropolitan area: 57 percent

Note: extreme levels of precipitation were determined relative to the local

climate. For a given weather station, the 59 largest one-day precipitation

totals during the 59-year period of analysis were identified, and the

smallest of those values equaled the threshold for an extreme precipitation


Source: Environment Massachusetts