You’re not imagining things, South Jersey. The tides are getting higher, the flooding is getting worse and the frequency of both is increasing.
Six tides higher than 7 feet – the point at which moderate flooding begins – have occurred in the last 30 days in coastal communities. Some high tides have exceeded 8, 9 and even 10 feet, topping ones registered in Cape May County during Hurricane Sandy. Another four tides in the 7-foot range happened in an October 2015 nor’easter.
“What appears to be routine flooding now is a combination of lunar events and the occurrence of storms,” said Michael Kennish, a research professor with the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. “Those are the primary drivers.”
The Jan. 23-24 nor’easter known as Jonas that brought record flooding to Stone Harbor and North Wildwood arrived on a full moon. This week’s high tides were caused by a low-pressure system that coincided with the new moon. A surprise Jan. 10 morning high tide also occurred during a new moon.
“People are saying, ‘The water seems to be coming up higher than it ever did.’ Well, yes, it is,” said Stewart Farrell, founder and director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University. “There’s been a gradual increase in sea level going on for 200 years.”
Rising seas, and, to a lesser extent, land subsidence, are contributing to the increase in overall flooding, the coastal experts said. But recent weather events also are to be blamed for the amount of water that has been pushed onto barrier islands, closing off access roads, damaging property and assaulting residents’ collective psyche.
“It seems like every two weeks it floods,” said Doug Bergen, public information officer for Ocean City, where firefighters carried students through water into the primary school during Tuesday morning’s high tide. “It’s just bad luck these storms have come at these phases of the moon.”
“There were some forecasts earlier this year that indicated El Nino would create more frequent coastal storms this winter,” said North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello, whose city was inundated by a 9.44-foot tide on Jan. 23 that caused $13 million in damage. “That forecast appears to be accurate.”
Kennish said the increase in frequency of flooding, which began building through the 1980s and 1990s, has been especially dramatic in the last 10 years along the shore.
“This is sort of the new norm,” he said, “but it’s something that’s been brewing for some time and it’s going to get worse because the rate of sea level rise is increasing and New Jersey is not prepared.”
How the state will answer that challenge is to be seen, he said, but retreat must be considered an option. In the short term, the shore’s next big test may come with the full moon of Feb. 22.
“People respond to a crisis,” Kennish said. “If you tell them the sea is going to rise 18 to 30 inches in the next 35 years, they don’t want to hear the scientific stuff. But you don’t have to be a scientist to see what is going on in your neighborhood.”
“Intensity, duration and timing,” Farrell said. “Those are the three parameters that make a storm memorable.”
That, and as Bergen said, a little bad luck.