Extreme Precipitation in Northeast to Increase 52% by 2099

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A new study projects more heavy rainfall events in the region due to climate change.

Worker tries to clear flooded road in southern Vermont rainstorm
A restaurant employee uses a rake to remove debris from a drain along Route 5 in Brattleboro, Vt., during a rainstorm in August 2019. A new Dartmouth study predicts a marked increase in heavy rain events in the Northeast by the end of the century. (Photo by Kristopher Radder/Brattleboro Reformer via AP)

With a warmer climate creating more humid conditions in the Northeast, extreme precipitation events—defined as at least 1.5 inches of heavy rainfall or melted snowfall in a day—are projected to increase in the Northeast by 52% by the end of the century, according to a new Dartmouth study.

The findings are published in Climatic Change.

“As climate change brings warmer temperatures, you have more water vapor in the atmosphere, which creates the right conditions for extreme precipitation,” says first author Christopher Picard ’23, an earth sciences major and undergraduate researcher in the Applied Hydroclimatology Group at Dartmouth.

“Our findings show that this increase in extreme precipitation will be primarily driven by more frequent heavy rainfall events, not by the intensity of such events,” says Picard. “In other words, we expect a large increase in the number of extreme precipitation days, and a smaller increase in the amount of rain on each extreme precipitation day.”

The findings also show that winter and spring contribute most to the projected 52% increase in extreme precipitation in the region by 2099, with increases of 109% and 89%, respectively.

Through previous research, senior author Jonathan Winter, an associate professor of geography and lead of the Applied Hydroclimatology Group, and other collaborators investigated how heavy rainfall events in the Northeast have changed historically. By examining data from 1901 to 2014, they found that there was about a 50% increase in extreme precipitation from 1996 to 2014, and that the increase was linked to climate change.

Jonathan Winter and Christopher Picard
Jonathan Winter, left, an associate professor of geography and lead of the Applied Hydroclimatology Group, and Christopher Picard ’23, an earth sciences major and undergraduate researcher in the group, are co-authors of the study. (Photo by Katie Lenhart)

“Building on our earlier work, we were particularly interested in determining how much extreme precipitation is expected to change across the Northeast in the future,” says Winter.

Similar to their other papers, the new study defines the Northeast as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Dartmouth’s study found that extreme precipitation increases are projected to be largest in West Virginia, parts of Pennsylvania, central New York, and northeastern Maine, with predominantly smaller increases along the Atlantic coast and south of Lake Ontario.

Map of the North East indicating that Virginia and Northern Maine will receive more rainfall in inches
Projected changes in precipitation in the Northeast by 2099. (Figure by C.Picard et al.)

The researchers applied a regional climate model from the National Center for Atmosphere Research to simulate precipitation for a historical period of 1976 to 2005 and future period of 2070 to 2099. Then, they compared their results to simulations of changing heavy rainfall events from other regional climate models and found that their results are consistent with the other regional climate model simulations, which predict increases in extreme precipitation ranging from 58% to 169%.

“Extreme precipitation events can pose threats to life, property, infrastructure, and the environment,” says Winter.

Previous research has reported how flooding, landslides, and erosion from these events can wash out roads, trigger agricultural runoff of pollutants, and damage recreational areas. “So, understanding where the floodplain is actually located, having the right-sized culverts or green infrastructure in place, and properly designing roads and bridges, are important to managing the extra water that we’re likely to encounter in the future,” he says.

Charlotte Cockburn, Guarini ’21; Janel Hanrahan at Northern Vermont University—Lyndon; Natalie Teale, a postdoctoral fellow in geography with Dartmouth’s Society of Fellows; and Patrick Clemins and Brian Beckage at the University of Vermont also contributed to the study.

Amy Olson