What Does That Parking Lot Puddle Have To Do With Climate Change?

11:19 minutes

a street is flooded up to a woman's shin. she has her jeans rolled up and is waving to a man who is sticking his head out a door that is barricaded with sandbags.
Storm surge floods Dock Street in downtown Annapolis, Maryland. Credit: Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program

The extreme effects of climate change are easy to see—more severe wildfire seasons burning through thousands of acres and increased sea levels wiping out entire coastal communities. But these changes also have more immediate, smaller-scale effects.  

For example, “sunny day” flooding happens when high tides cause temporary flooding of streets and parking lots. By 2035, scientists have predicted that over a hundred U.S. coastal communities could experience more than 26 days of these low level floods. Researchers at Stanford University determined the economic impacts of this type of flooding in the tourist area of Annapolis, Maryland. Climate risk scientist Miyuki Hino, an author on the study, talks about the impacts of these small scale effects of climate change.

And climate scientist Matt Fitzpatrick wanted to visualize what climate change would look like in your backyard. He created a map of temperature change for more than 500 urban areas in North America, to forecast local conditions in the year 2080. See how climate will feel like in your city in 60 years in the interactive map.

Further Reading

  • Read the original study by Miyuki Hino and the team at Stanford published today in Science Advances. 
  • Read an op-ed by Miyuki Hino and fellow Stanford researcher Katharine Mach about the climate risks and on-going flooding in the New York Times. 
  • Explore this infographic about the increases in “sunny day” flooding in the New York Times.
  • Find out how the researchers at Stanford are using machine learning to aid environmental monitoring.

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Miyuki Hino

Miyuki Hino is a Ph.D Candidate in Environment and Resources at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you read the big climate reports from the UN or the US government, you see figures like 3 degrees Celsius increase in mean global temperature, or you have a map of the world painted in orange and red, and the Arctic a deep shade of purple. 

But what does that mean for you? How do you translate that life into your neighborhood, in your backyard? Spatial ecologist Matt Fitzpatrick wanted to make those numbers and charts come alive to people, feel a little more real. And he found his motivation in an unusual place. 

MATT FITZPATRICK: I was at a relative’s house, and I happened to see a book by Ann Coulter on the bookshelf, which isn’t something I would normally pick up, but for fun, I was paging through it. And I came to this section talking about climate change, which of course, I was interested in. So I started reading that, and she said something to the effect of, what’s the big deal about this? 

Imagine you’re outside at a cookout. It’s 70 degrees. All of a sudden, the temperature warms up to 73. 

What’s the big deal? And I kind of laughed and said, well, of course, that’s not what that means. But then I thought, well, what does it mean? 

IRA FLATOW: Fitzpatrick, who’s at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, decided to actually figure out what your backyard barbecue will feel like 60 years from now under climate change. And he expanded that projection to more than 500 urban areas around North America. Under our current level of emissions, he says, Portland, Portland, Oregon will feel more like Sacramento, 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer and half as wet. 

Los Angeles will be more like the southern tip of Baja, California, hotter and 20 times wetter. Washington in DC and New York will feel more like Mississippi and Arkansas do today. And in some cases, climate change is dialing in new combinations of temperature and humidity that have no modern equivalent. 

MATT FITZPATRICK: One thing I like to do is think about this in terms of my daughter. She is 12. And these results to me really speak to their dramatic transformation of climate that’s going to occur over her lifetime. And that’s going to have all sort of effects for the systems that we depend on. And then if I think further ahead about grandchildren, if they live in the same place that I live now, if they had a time machine and came back to today, us speaking, I don’t think they’d recognize the climate that I’m currently living in. 

IRA FLATOW: And you can find out your city’s future climate. And we have a link to Matt’s interactive map at ScienceFriday.com/climatemap. And just as global temperature estimates might be hard to translate to your backyard, what do global estimates of sea level rise mean for you? 

Well, yes, of course, some cities will flood. Some communities will have to pack up and move. But that’s the extreme case. Higher sea levels always don’t show up that way. It could be a puddle in a parking lot, or a couple of streets with overflowing sewers that last for just a few hours, something called sunny day flooding. Scientists estimate that hundreds of coastal cities could experience more of these type of floods in the future. 

What does this slow drip, drip of liquid climate change add up to economically? Researchers wanted to figure out how much this might cost a city. And their results were published today in the journal Science Advances. Miyuki Hino is an author on this study and a PhD candidate in the Environment and Resources at Stanford University. Welcome to Science Friday. 

MIYUKI HINO: Hi, Ira. I’m happy to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: So what is the definition of a sunny day flooding? 

MIYUKI HINO: Sure. So sunny day flooding is also called high tide flooding or nuisance flooding. It’s flooding that happens when there is no storm in sight. 

As sea levels are rising around the world, it doesn’t take a big storm to cause flooding. All it takes is a little push, extra high tide, or the wind blowing in the wrong direction, and all of a sudden, you have the sea spilling onto roads and swamping drainage systems. And that kind of thing is happening 30, 40, 50 times per year in some places. 

IRA FLATOW: So the sea is actually backing up the drainage systems, backing up onto the streets or the parking lots? 

MIYUKI HINO: Yeah. We see a lot of different kinds of sunny day flooding. Sometimes it is the ocean is coming in over an edge. Maybe we have a seawall or a promenade, and it’s higher than that, so it’s flowing over. But in other cases, it’s actually coming in through our drainage system and up and out of the storm sewers. 

IRA FLATOW: There was a study out of Miami and actually documented by the Herald that by 2040, 64% of county septic tanks down there, almost 70,000, could have issues every year due to flooding, backing up. 

MIYUKI HINO: Yeah. I think we’re just starting to learn about a lot of emerging risks that are coming from climate change in all forms, not just sea level rise. We’re used to thinking about climate change in relation to our extreme weather events. But increasingly, we also have to worry about these slow moving gradual changes. 

IRA FLATOW: And you wanted to find how much economics this slow moving gradual change has on a community. And your study focused on Annapolis, Maryland. Used some creative ways to measure how much sunny day flooding was costing the city. 

You used a parking lot. Not your usual metric. Tell us what you did. 

MIYUKI HINO: Yeah, well, it’s tricky to study these kinds of floods because they often last just a few hours at a time, and they’re not destroying houses and infrastructure. So all of the impacts are happening in a couple of hours, and you have to measure something really frequently to detect those kinds of impacts. In Annapolis, one of the main places that floods a lot is down in their historic tourist district. It’s called City Dock, and it’s a parking lot that charges for parking. So we could actually use that record of parking transactions minute by minute to see how flooding was affecting visits to downtown. 

IRA FLATOW: And you found that the more it flooded, the less people were coming in the parking lot. 

MIYUKI HINO: Yeah. Absolutely. Downtown Annapolis in 2017 saw about 3,000 fewer customers, fewer visitors than they would have in a year with no floods. And those numbers add up really quickly as sea levels start to rise even further. 

IRA FLATOW: And when you added– of course, you pay to go park, so when you don’t pay, you’re losing money. 

MIYUKI HINO: Sure. The city is losing money just from the lack of parkers. But those businesses that rely on the people coming downtown, they’re losing customers, they’re losing diners, they’re losing tourists. So it really is an important metric that the entire community really relies on. 

IRA FLATOW: Could you put an actual figure on the economic impact? 

MIYUKI HINO: It’s trickier to do that because that depends on a lot of things, like how many people are paying for things, and what are they paying for, and how much are they spending? But we estimate that the 16 businesses that are most affected by these floods in Annapolis lost about $100,000 in revenue in 2017 due to these floods. 

IRA FLATOW: That’s a lot for a small business, isn’t it? 

MIYUKI HINO: Yeah. And a lot of these businesses are staples of the community. They’ve been there for a really long time. And fortunately, the city of Annapolis is really on top of this problem. They’re putting together plans, they’re raising money, and they’re trying to tackle it. 

IRA FLATOW: In what ways? How do you keep the water out? Or what ways do you tackle it? 

MIYUKI HINO: Well, there’s a lot of ways that you could tackle these kinds of problems. And I think it’s important to highlight that we’re not just going to sit there as sea levels rise. We can act, and we can adapt, and we can reduce the losses from these kinds of events. 

In Annapolis, they’re looking at installing pumps in that area to remove the water. In other places, you might think about elevating structures. For some businesses, they might be able to shift some of their sales to being online, or they might have communication strategies to bring in customers when it’s not flooded. So there’s a whole range of things that you could do to ensure that these businesses remain a vibrant part of the community well into the future. 

IRA FLATOW: You know, an interesting lesson about this is that when we talk about climate change and sea level rise, we think of giant ocean waves crashing. We see giant icebergs breaking off. But this is going to drip very slowly and creep very slowly into people’s lives, isn’t it? 

MIYUKI HINO: Well it’s a slow rise, but the impacts, once they’re here, will rise up really quickly. So for example, in Annapolis, the impacts that we’ve seen to date, those 3,000 lost visits, those came from about one foot of sea level rise in the past. But it’s only going to take three more inches of sea level rise to lose another 3,000 visits. And so we see this steep increase in losses that means adaptation and really planning ahead before these impacts are already upon you is really important. 

IRA FLATOW: Just three more inches to do that. Wow. And the community is aware of this and willing to act? 

MIYUKI HINO: Yeah, they are. They were fantastic partners for us throughout this study. When we met with them initially, they were clearly concerned. They were already working on how they could deal with the drainage in this particular area. And we’re hopeful that this evidence that we’ve put together will help them, and also will help a lot of other cities around the United States that are dealing with this problem to prepare appropriately. 

IRA FLATOW: Have you gotten interest from other cities who’ve read about this? 

MIYUKI HINO: Well, we know that this is a problem that affects a lot of cities. Right now, the East Coast is suffering from these types of floods a little bit more than the West Coast. But cities like Miami, Charleston, Norfolk, Virginia are all coping with these kinds of floods. And the precise impacts, the way that they materialize are going to differ from place to place, but the more evidence we have about how they’re affecting businesses, how they’re affecting public health, how they’re affecting traffic, all of that evidence is going to help us make better decisions about where and how to invest. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you good luck, and keep in touch as you– 

MIYUKI HINO: Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Miyuki Hino is a PhD candidate in Environment and Resources at Stanford University.

Copyright © 2019 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More