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Rising Waters

A sunny day in Charleston and a flood: What that tells us about climate change and the future

  • Updated
  • 9 min to read
PRINT A cyclist on flooded Lockwood Boulevard Monday.

High tide pushed about a foot of water inland where Lockwood Drive and Broad Street converge on Monday, Sep. 21, 2020. Matthew Fortner/Staff

1. Sun

Under a perfect blue sky, Charleston began to flood.

At noon Monday, the tide pushed toward the dunes. It filled the area’s rivers and marshlands. It rose higher along The Battery’s sea wall.

Then, like an overfilled cup, the Atlantic poured in.

By high tide, we’d set yet another 8-foot-plus tide, another high-water mark. It was among the 30 highest tides here since scientists have been keeping track. And that includes past hurricane surges.

Monday's sunny day flood happened because of a combination of factors, and some of these are normal: The moon’s gravitational pull would have made tides higher than average no matter what. And the passing of Hurricane Sally also piled waves onto the coast.

Other factors aren’t normal at all.

A rapidly warming planet has accelerated rising sea levels in multiple ways. Sunny day floods like Monday's once were rare, but seas are a foot higher now than a century ago. And in a place called the Lowcountry, every inch matters.

The Post and Courier’s "Rising Waters" project is documenting the immediate impacts of these accelerating climate change forces — such as a flood here on a day with no rain.

These accelerating forces are playing out here and against a larger backdrop: a summer of climate chaos across the world.

But first, our sunny flood.

Hagood flood.JPG

Vehicles tread through flooded water at the intersection of Hagood and Line on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

2. Rare

A tidal flood is an incremental event, one that creeps up on you. By 11 a.m. Monday, we were at the brim.

Waves ate away at dunes on barrier islands. Seawater poured through Breach Inlet, the gap between the Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. It filled the marshes behind those sandy barriers. It swamped the marsh grass fronds.

Charleston sits squarely in the Lowcountry and is no stranger to chaos from flooding rain storms.

But when tides pass the 7-foot mark like this, land trades places with the Atlantic whether there's rain or not.

Through the 1980s, this typically happened just five times a year — usually when a hurricane pushed waves ashore, such as Hugo, the record-holder with a 12.5-foot crest.

But last year, Charleston had a record 89 tides that breached that 7-foot level. So far this year, we’ve had 42 flooding tides. The past week alone had 7-footers at least once every day. More brimming tides are expected this week.

And they'll get worse in the future as global sea levels increase. Already, Charleston is on a list of the eight most vulnerable cities in the United States to these forces, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

And a study published Friday by University of South Carolina researchers uncovered new evidence that the city's vulnerability is accelerating.

In the past, scientists thought sea levels rose in a straight line, like a slightly upward-tilting seesaw.

But the new USC study and other research shows that seas are rising faster every decade, said James Morris, a biology professor and co-author of the analysis. Graph it and instead of a straight line you have an upward curve — an accelerating pace.

Because of this acceleration, our floods will last longer, from about six hours a day now during a tidal flood to 10 hours by 2050.

"As the number of hours go up, so does the disruption," Morris said. "And we'll see significant areas of the city flood that don't flood today."

As the water rose Monday, the effects soon rippled across the city. 

PRINT XH1F9380-musc-wide.jpg

A higher than normal tide floods Ashley Avenue near MUSC in downtown Charleston on Monday, Sep. 21, 2020. Matthew Fortner/Staff

3. Sponge

In downtown Charleston, salt water poured into streets around White Point Garden. Officers put up barricades on Lockwood Boulevard as the Ashley River merged with the surrounding neighborhood. It coursed down Calhoun Street by the Medical University of South Carolina's new Children's Hospital. Water filled the City Marina parking lot. On Barre and Wentworth streets, it oozed from the soil.

About 30 minutes before high tide, contractor John Jamison ran out of the house he was working in on Line Street to move his white truck. He was surprised at how quickly the water was rising at Line and Hagood streets, just north of the city's sprawling medical district. And while he knew flooding was a problem in the area, he hadn’t even thought to wear boots on Monday.

“Look at how fast it’s coming in,” he said. “I wonder who thought to build this here,” he said, gesturing to the Gadsden Green homes, a public housing complex behind him.

The housing complex has long been plagued by flooding that spills out of tidally influenced Gadsden Creek, across the street. Rain makes the situation far worse. But on a bright day with a blue sky rippling in reflections of the murky water, a high tide was about to create a mini lake that sprayed the undersides of motorists' cars with salty water.

“When it rains, you should see how it pours in here. You might as well build a bridge over this thing,” Jamison said.

Charleston has lost ground for a century against the Atlantic. Sea levels here are rising, in part, because of subsidence, the natural sinking of the land. But climate change is a bigger factor, and one that’s driving changes in unexpected ways.

We've known for more than 150 years that carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. And, because we've burned so much fossil fuel, our atmosphere now has 42 percent more CO2 — an increase unlike anything the Earth has seen in hundreds of thousands of years.

The atmosphere has warmed as a result, and the United States saw the effects this summer. Death Valley hit 130 degrees. Scorching heat melted one record after another across the region. At least 452 cities had among the warmest summers on record. At least 55 cities had their hottest one ever.

In 2020 many cities saw their hottest summers on record

In 2020, many cities saw their hottest summers on record or had top-10 hottest summers. ClimateCentral/Provided

The heat waves set the stage for the cataclysmic wildfires across the West. A town in Siberia that has been dubbed the coldest places in the northern hemisphere hit 100 degrees, possibly the hottest temperature ever recorded above the Arctic Circle. Two glaciers in Antarctica are teetering on collapse, and, like giant ice cubes thrown into the cup, that could raise global sea levels in feet instead of inches.

So far the ocean has absorbed much of the heat human beings produce — heat injected equivalent to four atomic bombs going off every second.

But now ocean temperatures are rising. Water naturally expands when it gets hotter — and spills onto more land than it would otherwise.

Warmer oceans also fuel more intense and frequent storms. And 2020 has been one for the record books. We blew through an alphabet of 23 named storms and are now going through the Greek alphabet. On Friday, Tropical Storm Beta formed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Six weeks are left in the hurricane season.

Still, with none currently on Charleston's horizon, the ocean moved inland Monday.

PRINT saltwater cowboys water serving.jpg

Server Alexandra Schroettner walks through saltwater that has risen over the patio at Saltwater Cowboys as she serves guests lunch on Shem Creek Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, in Mount Pleasant. The restaurant has been dealing with the high tide filling water through the majority of their patio several days. Some servers bring their own boots after learning from experience but the restaurant also keeps a stash of boots on hand for employees for king tide events. “‘I think it’s fun. It’s somewhat exciting. Especially with boots on.“ said Schroettner who splashed around in bright yellow boots serving customers. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

4. Gulf Stream

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“It doesn’t really put out the welcome mat,” said Sarah Fitch, vice president of Mount Pleasant Seafood on Shem Creek, glancing through the glass door at the water creeping into the parking lot.

Outside, the sky was blue and clear, but high tide was approaching. Part of the parking lot that serves the seafood business and several restaurants already had turned into a lake. 

Mount Pleasant Seafood gives out free tide charts, but they aren’t just for fishing. Fitch uses hers to plan trips to the Charleston peninsula, where she attends church at St. Matthews.

“If somebody says they are from out of town, we’ll give them a tide chart,” she said. “The locals would probably know to schedule their time around it.”

Standing behind the seafood counter, with a face mask on to protect against coronavirus, Fitch said sunny-day flooding has been getting more frequent.

“I don’t know if it’s global warming, infrastructure or something else," she said.

Global warming has had an unexpected effect on a powerful river in the ocean 60 miles offshore: the mighty Gulf Stream.

It flows with so much force that it pulls water away from the coast, lowering our sea level by as much as 3 feet.

But a growing body of evidence suggests that climate change has gummed up that current. A slower current means high sea levels along the East Coast.

Researchers at Old Dominion University recently published a new study that analyzed sea level trends since 1900. They found an unprecedented slowdown in the Gulf Stream since 1990 — one that couldn't be explained by seasonal variations, said Tal Ezer, a professor of ocean sciences at Old Dominion University who led the study.

Ezer's previous work had shown that hurricanes, including Hurricane Matthew in 2016, could temporarily put a kink in the Gulf Stream, a kink that led to higher tides from the Carolinas to Virginia. He had an inkling that Hurricane Dorian had done so in 2019; the storm followed a similar track as Matthew's and was among the most powerful on record, clipping Charleston.

Ezar discovered that the Gulf Stream slowed for more than a month and a half after Hurricane Dorian had passed, raising sea levels along the East Coast.

"I was somewhat surprised how long this impact lasted."

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City of Charleston Police Sgt. Chris Adams sets up a blockade at the corner of South Battery and East Battery Street to keep cars from driving through water Monday Sept. 21, 2020, in Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

5. Ripple effects

By 12:15 p.m., high tide, traffic slowed to a crawl around the medical district. Half a mile inland, water pooled by Cannon Park as sunbathers stretched out on a blanket. The water crested at 8.03 feet, and when it gets this high, the story isn't about drainage. It's about inundation from the sea.

By the Low Battery wall, brown, murky water sloshed in waves against its ramparts, coming perilously close to the top as the sea spilled onto the roadway from drains around the corner. Tourists stood around snapping pictures of cars passing through, throwing up high sprays, as Charleston police officers waded in to set up barriers at the intersection of East and South Battery.

James Gathers cradled a fishing pole in his hands as he tried to explain this odd phenomenon to a pair of out-of-town visitors. He’d felt drawn there Monday morning to fish for trout, but had only caught a feeling of disappointment.

Gathers grew up in Awendaw and has spent his 62 years around the Charleston area. He contends city officials should have seen this moment coming years ago and done something to help fix it rather than shovel money into various other projects to appeal to tourists. He wonders where the city will be in 10 years if action isn’t taken soon.

“Greed has caused this city to lack. A lot of people have been rubbing money when they should have been spending it on things to make it better,” he said. "It’s a beautiful city, but we need to do something now to save this place we say we love.”

At the City Market, tourists maneuvered strollers and wheelchairs around the flooding. The guide of a horse carriage tour urged her guests to look at how the bottom few bricks of the market buildings are darker, a sign of how often the water rises around them.

Margaret Smith has worked in a T-shirt stand in the City Market for 24 years. She was one of the vendors separated from her customers by a moat that grew around some souvenir stalls. Business “was going great before this,” she said. “Now nobody can cross.”

She knows the routine by now: smile and be friendly, but encourage pedestrians to come back in an hour or so, when water welling up long after the high tide might have receded. A newly installed drain was evacuating some of the ponding, but in other places, puddles were still spreading and merging together.

“The city’s tried (to fix the problem),” Smith said. “I just wish it wouldn’t flood.”

PRINT Carriage tour .JPG

A carriage tour makes its way down North Market Street in flooded water on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Further up the peninsula, Shawn Parks shook his head as he watched the floodwaters pool beneath his Jeep and circle his home on North Hanover Street. He'd already lost a low-riding Honda to tidal floods that chewed up its chassis and rotted out the joints with their salty brine. And each year it seems to get worse.

Parks has lived in the spot for 20 years. It's quiet and close to his job at the port. But the construction of a high-rise condo and office complex next door on Cool Blow Street paved over land that used to absord some of the rising tides and runoff from heavy downpours. Now, the waters regularly swamp the road outside his door and surround his home, turning his back yard into a small brackish lake replete with dead sea birds and other ocean treasures. So he diligently checks the tides and keeps pairs of heavy rubber boots in his home and vehicle to guarantee he'll be able to get where he needs to go. 

"Because when I come home, I never know what I am going to find," he said, chuckling grimly. "I always wanted a pool in the back yard, but I'm afraid of what I might be in there." 

On Folly Beach, Jeanette Halberda took a break from her run to watch tidal water spew out from a grate.

“This is unusual,” Halberda said, who has lived in the beach community for the past eight years.

Halberda said she is optimistic about human ingenuity but is concerned about the future.

“I have hope in the human species,” she said. “I hope things will change so what’s occurring environmentally won't be as damaging. But I think we’re late in the game.”

After a few more moments, Halberda turned and continued her run, clutching weights in either hand, the submerged road to her back.

PRINT paddleboard.jpg

Stratton Lawrence carries a paddle board across the street from his house through a flooded East Cooper Avenue on Folly Beach to take advantage of an unusually high tide on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

6. Recede

Monday's sunny day flood was abnormal when placed in a historical context, but it's also a taste of the future.

In the USC study, Morris and his colleague Katherine Renken calculated that Charleston's sea level will be a foot higher within about 30 years, the life of many a mortgage.

Girding the city against tide levels that approach something akin to a hurricane surge will be a monumental undertaking. In his paper, Morris stepped outside the scientific arena.

"There's no way the population of Charleston can pay to protect the city on its own," he said.

He urged city and state leaders to consider enacting an additional hospitality tax.

But call it a climate tax instead.

"Humans have taxed the Earth’s climate," he wrote in his paper, "and the time has come for a climate tax in order to insure human welfare."

Glenn Smith, David Slade, Chloe Johnson and Stephen Hobbs contributed to this report.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme, senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier, has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Twitter: @tbartelme Signal: 843-412-2283.

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