Wednesday, September 1, 2021

You've Been Wet Before (Maynard MA: Rain 2021)

Growing up in New Jersey suburbia, with three boys separated by a total of five years, plus a younger sister, we boys often got a command from our mother: “Go outside and play.” If we answered back with “But it’s raining,” The rejoinder was “You’ve been wet before.”

Which was true. We lived in a town that would in time become a bedroom suburb of 30,000, but at that time was a hamlet of maybe 5,000 containing abandoned farms gone to woodland, crisscrossed by old stone walls, dotted by depressions that had been root cellars, and wetted by creeks, springs and ephemeral (‘vernal’) ponds. Of course we got wet. How else could you catch frogs? We also got scratched by branches, fell out of trees, and suffered poison ivy mightily. There were broken limbs. There were stitches.  

Even constrained to the yard (“Don’t go anywhere, dinner soon.”) we still managed to get adventurously hurt, for there was stilt walking, unicycle riding, a tightrope wire set (low) between two trees, etc. Hatchet throwing, knife throwing and ninja stars were hard on trees, but luckily, we managed to avoid bloody messes. Mostly. My index finger fingerprint has a line through the center, dating back some 50-ish years. Trying to wiggle a knife out of a tree truck, it would have been wise to realize that the blade was sharp on both sides, all the way to the hilt.   

Debris jammed at bridges forced the flood waters 
over the banks, to gather more debris, to jam at
the next bridge. (Waverly, TN 2021)
As for when wet gets to be a problem, the recent disaster in Waverly, Tennessee points to the present and future problems of climate change. The math is simple: warmer air can hold more water – about seven percent for every one degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit). More water vapor in the atmosphere means more moisture available to fall as rain, which leads to higher rainfall rates from severe storms. And to be precise as to what happened to Waverly, the town itself got only about two inches of rain, but the hill country to the east got as much as 17 inches in 24 hours, with a goodly part of that falling at a rate of more than 3 inches per hour, for hours. People in Waverly reported gong from seeing creek water in their yards to standing on top of their kitchen counters, water up to their waist, hoping the house stayed on its foundation. Many did not. Buildings, trailer homes and vehicles were pushed into streams where they became impromptu dams, causing the water to rise faster and spread wider.

Rain at that furious rate can happen two ways. One is a cold front displacing a warm air mass, creating a line of thunderstorms moving fast, typically without serious flooding. A second is hot and humid air rising until it reaches colder air tens of thousands of feet higher, where it condenses to rain and falls. If these cumulonimbus clouds happen to be completely stationary rather than lumbering across the countryside, all the rain falls in one place.

August 1955: Hurricane Diane. View of the Assabet River 
from the Main Street bridge, flooding into the mill buildings
(Courtesy Maynard Historical Society)
By the way, the Massachusetts record is 18.15 inches in 24 hours in Westfield, August 18-19, 1955. That was the remnants of warm, wet Hurricane Diane slow-walking across New England, resulting in a peak water level for the Assabet River that has not been surpassed in 65 years.

 According to a recent article in the New York Times, a thirty-year change in weather patterns across the United States is portrayed by a simple map: drier in the west, wetter in the east. Population growth in the west may be curtailed by lack of available water, while in the east, flood plain maps are dangerously outdated. Maynard’s flood history is severe flooding in 1927 (hurricane), 1936 (spring thaw plus rain), 1938 (hurricane) and 1955 (hurricane). More recent floods (1968, 1979, 1987 and 2010) were not as severe, primarily because federally funded flood control dams on the Assabet River and its tributaries provide several billions of gallons of holdback capacity to blunt peak high water. The greatest risk for surprise flooding in Maynard is not so much just the water volume as what can happen if downed trees in the river (of which there are several) are dislodged and end up jammed behind a bridge. This is exactly what cause the overflow and severe damage to the Waltham Street bridge in 1927. Older lifelong residents of Maynard can remember watching to see if the 1955 flood would take out any bridges.

At 10.07 inches for July, this was the second-wettest July for Boston; and the wettest for Worcester, at 13.85 inches of rain. August was abnormally rainy, and September started with 4.0 inches for Maynard from the remnants of Hurricane Ida. This could be a record year for precipitation.

What’s the difference between raining and pouring? When it’s raining, your hair gets wet. When’s pouring your underwear gets wet.    

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