Sunny day flooding used to be a rarity in Charleston and many other seacoast cities. Where Charleston saw just a day or two of tidal flooding a year in the 1960s, now it sees as many as 50.
“In June 2009, we had flooded communities up and down the East Coast, and we wondered what was going on?” said William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Maryland.
He and his colleagues looked at tidal gauges and changes in the Gulf Stream flow. They noticed a correlation: When the Gulf Stream slowed down, sea levels along the East Coast went up — sometimes as much as a half-foot above normal.
His and other research showed that temporary changes in the Gulf Stream have a ripple effect on sea levels along the East Coast.
Sweet calls the larger issue of whether the Gulf Stream is slowing “a beautiful, muddled problem” — one that raises pressing questions for scientists and coastal residents alike.
“We’re at the point in many cities where sea levels are now at the brim — where literally inches matter.”
For a deeper dive into the Gulf Stream and the amazing and disturbing things happening to it, visit our new special report: Into the Gulf Stream.