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ENC experts concerned over environmentally-damaging hurricane trend

Environmentalists have been noticing a trend of more frequent storms that have brought more rain farther inland, which washes environmental concerns back to our coasts.
Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 7:23 PM EDT
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CARTERET COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) - Hurricane season is here, and experts are already predicting above-average storm activity.

But it’s not the increasing frequency of storms that are causing environmentalists to be concerned. That was largely expected, they say. It’s the increasing rainfall that’s being brought farther inland that is making experts worried about our coastal waterways.

“It isn’t over when it’s over, so to speak, once the hurricanes have left,” said Hans Paerl, an environmental studies professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences. “The one thing that really characterizes a lot of these storms is that they get stalled when they get up to the coast and they turn into rain machines, basically.”

Paerl has been studying the impact hurricanes have on Eastern Carolina ecosystems for 30 years. Over that time, he said, he’s noticed hurricanes picking up more water because of a warming ocean he says is unmistakably caused by climate change.

“Six of the wettest storms that we have had over the 120-year dataset have occurred over the last 20 years,” said Paerl.

That means heavier rainfalls have been predicted farther inland during named storm events. That puts more pressure onto rivers in major metropolitan areas that aren’t used to the rain levels.

“Lots of that water then goes over the banks and picks up whatever is out there and brings it back to our coastal zone,” said Paerl. “The thing we’re really worried about is nutrients.”

It’s causing issues in the Pamlico Sound including algae blooms and other environmental hazards, he said, that can potentially be slowed by human activity, but likely not stopped altogether.

WITN meteorologists are predicting an above-average hurricane season with anywhere from 13 to 20 named storms by the time the season ends on November 30.

“For us, August and September and the first half of October are primetime for when most hurricanes have hit Eastern Carolina,” said Phillip Williams, WITN meteorologist.

The increased frequency has been largely expected, experts say, because of the cyclical nature of hurricane activity, but it’s still Paerl’s biggest concern for ecosystems along coastal Carolina.

“If you have a system that’s starting to recover, which may take a year or two, and then it gets hit by another storm, it’s getting hit while the patient is still recovering.”

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