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Carolinas brace for flooding after Florence

Authorities warn that the damage from Florence is far from over as the flood danger continues to be an imminent threat to the Carolinas.

Posted: Sep 17, 2018 1:13 PM
Updated: Sep 17, 2018 1:32 PM

As we write, Florence is slamming into the Carolinas. State, local and federal emergency planners have been working around the clock for the past week to prepare their communities and citizens to deal with this powerful storm.

The governors of North and South Carolina and the mayors of Wilmington and Myrtle Beach told their citizens and tourists along the coasts to evacuate to higher ground in advance of the flooding and storm surge. Nearly 2 million people were under mandatory and voluntary evacuations orders.

The National Guard and the Coast Guard have been providing search and rescue services. And the media, both traditional and social, are broadcasting non-stop real-time updates as the storm blankets the coast. All of this advance planning was possible because the science and technology that goes into predicting hurricanes have gotten steadily better for decades. We now have much better forecasts than we used to, available further in advance.

Better forecasts give local officials more timely information, allowing them and their citizens to make life-saving decisions. If Florence had hit the Carolinas 30 years ago, the accuracy of the track forecast two days ahead of time would have been about the same as that for the five-day forecast today. Whatever the final death toll from Florence, it would almost certainly have been substantially larger back then, even though there are many more people living in the areas at risk today.

How did we get forecasts good enough to give us a week to prepare for storms such as Florence? It may feel like they are free, because as individuals we don't see a bill for them. But they aren't free. They are the result of sustained public investment in scientific research and education.

According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in inflation-adjusted dollars, federal support for university-based research increased from around $8 billion per year in the 1960s to more than $30 billion today.

Federal agencies have long supported basic research in mathematics and the physical sciences, computer science and engineering, and the geosciences. That basic research forms the foundation that enables the development of sophisticated models that can simulate the atmosphere with amazing fidelity.

Key components of that foundation today include the powerful supercomputers needed to run the models; satellites, radar, and other instruments carried on airplanes, balloons and other platforms that make the key observations the models need to start their predictions; and, equally important, an understanding of how the atmosphere and ocean work, separately and together.

For example, beginning with Ed Lorenz's work on chaos theory in the 1960s, scientists have worked out how and why the weather is unpredictable beyond a week or two ahead of time. This understanding informs the data assimilation systems used to put observations into the prediction models, and the ensemble systems that run the same model over and over again to assess uncertainty, producing the "spaghetti diagrams" of multiple hurricane tracks that you can now find all over the internet when a storm is coming.

At our own Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in the 1980s, Mark Cane and Steven Zebiak developed the first computer model capable of predicting El Nino events, and this led to the seasonal forecasts of climate variations -- including overall levels of hurricane activity, though not specific individual hurricanes -- that we now get months in advance.

All of these products of publicly funded research allow us to predict our weather and climate with the accuracy needed to save lives in the ways we are seeing now. The observations, models and computers -- all implemented by well-trained professionals who themselves are products of sustained public investments in education and training that have been made alongside the investments in research -- turn huge amounts of raw data into "actionable intelligence" to be used by businesses, local and state governments, and citizens.

Florence is a dangerous storm. It may devastate coastal communities and the barrier islands with wind, rain and storm surge. There have already been fatalities, and most likely, there will be more, and those deaths will be very visible in the media.

Of course, any number of deaths is tragic. But the good news -- though much less visible -- will be the much greater number of lives that have been saved by this nation's continuing investment in the underlying science and technology.

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 790096

Reported Deaths: 15056
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Los Angeles2614466366
Riverside574191162
San Bernardino52649908
Orange522011128
San Diego44925760
Kern31509354
Fresno27769355
Sacramento21628383
Alameda20641374
Santa Clara20511297
San Joaquin19841415
Stanislaus16351337
Contra Costa15958201
Tulare15599256
Ventura12406143
Imperial11583314
San Francisco1080799
San Mateo9598143
Monterey955067
Santa Barbara8880110
Merced8750134
Kings743077
Sonoma7112114
Marin6591112
Solano617555
Madera439162
Placer348841
San Luis Obispo339327
Butte276435
Yolo275454
Santa Cruz22188
Sutter164210
Napa162613
San Benito131011
Yuba11187
El Dorado10734
Mendocino85118
Lassen7350
Shasta70914
Glenn5503
Nevada5116
Colusa5106
Tehama5094
Lake49210
Humboldt4856
Calaveras31114
Amador28616
Tuolumne2214
Inyo18714
Mono1652
Siskiyou1610
Del Norte1361
Mariposa752
Plumas490
Modoc240
Trinity150
Sierra60
Alpine20
Unassigned00
Chico
Broken Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 86°
Oroville
Clear
89° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 89°
Paradise
Broken Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 86°
Chester
Clear
75° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 46°
Feels Like: 75°
Red Bluff
Clear
83° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 83°
Willows
Broken Clouds
86° wxIcon
Hi: 92° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 86°
A small trough of low pressure moved over the Pacific Northwest on this first day of autumn, and it brought more gusty wind and an improvement to the air quality for most of us. The breezes will continue through the week, and other changes are coming soon.
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