FLOODSPredicting Flood Risk from Hurricanes in a Warming Climate

By Jennifer Chu

Published 25 January 2024

Coastal cities and communities will face more frequent major hurricanes with climate change in the coming years. Using New York as a test case, a model developed by MIT scientists predicts flooding at the level experienced during Hurricane Sandy will occur roughly every 30 years by the end of this century.

Coastal cities and communities will face more frequent major hurricanes with climate change in the coming years. To help prepare coastal cities against future storms, MIT scientists have developed a method to predict how much flooding a coastal community is likely to experience as hurricanes evolve over the next decades.

When hurricanes make landfall, strong winds whip up salty ocean waters that generate storm surge in coastal regions. As the storms move over land, torrential rainfall can induce further flooding inland. When multiple flood sources such as storm surge and rainfall interact, they can compound a hurricane’s hazards, leading to significantly more flooding than would result from any one source alone. The new study introduces a physics-based method for predicting how the risk of such complex, compound flooding may evolve under a warming climate in coastal cities.

One example of compound flooding’s impact is the aftermath from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The storm made landfall on the East Coast of the United States as heavy winds whipped up a towering storm surge that combined with rainfall-driven flooding in some areas to cause historic and devastating floods across New York and New Jersey.

In their study, the MIT team applied the new compound flood-modeling method to New York City to predict how climate change may influence the risk of compound flooding from Sandy-like hurricanes over the next decades.  

They found that, in today’s climate, a Sandy-level compound flooding event will likely hit New York City every 150 years. By midcentury, a warmer climate will drive up the frequency of such flooding, to every 60 years. At the end of the century, destructive Sandy-like floods will deluge the city every 30 years — a fivefold increase compared to the present climate.

“Long-term average damages from weather hazards are usually dominated by the rare, intense events like Hurricane Sandy,” says study co-author Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT. “It is important to get these right.”

While these are sobering projections, the researchers hope the flood forecasts can help city planners prepare and protect against future disasters. “Our methodology equips coastal city authorities and policymakers with essential tools to conduct compound flooding risk assessments from hurricanes in coastal cities at a detailed, granular level, extending to each street or building, in both current and future decades,” says study author Ali Sarhadi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.