Yes, Climate Change Helped Matthew Produce a Massive Swath of Destruction Extending From Haiti to Southeastern Virginia

Too close to home. That’s the sentence that best describes hurricane Matthew’s impacts — at least for this particular observer. And it’s one that I think we will be saying more and more often over the coming years as sea levels rise and peak storm intensities continue to increase due to a human-forced warming of the world’s atmosphere and oceans.


(Hurricane Matthew interacted with a trough to dump 1 in 1000 year rains over North Carolina and Virginia on October 8th even as its powerful storm surge continued to flood coastal communities. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Severe Damage To Florida Coastline Communities — But it Could Have Been Worse

On Thursday, October 6th, as the storm was barreling in toward the Florida coastline, I was on the phone with numerous Florida relatives — somewhat frantically asking if they’d heeded evacuation orders and gotten away from low-lying areas near the ocean. One uncle had decided to hunker down in an inlet-side New Smyrna Beach home about 6 feet above sea level, but the rest had headed inland. Thankfully, Matthew passed just off shore of New Smyrna at low tide — only giving my uncle a bit of a scare by flooding his neighborhood but not completely inundating his house (as would have happened if Matthew had made landfall in that community as a category 4 storm rather than remaining at sea).

Further north, my college town of St. Augustine, FL did not fair quite so well. Downtown St. Augustine, which borders the Matanzas River — an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean — saw Matthew sweeping by at high tide. As a result, severe storm surge flooding rose up over the sea wall and put the city’s streets under 3-4 feet of water. Local businesses flooded, a 17th Century Fort that is a tourist attraction saw its moat fill and then overtop, and Flagler College, which I attended during the 1990s, had its grounds soaked. Nearby, parts of Route A1A on Flagler Beach were swept out into the Atlantic Ocean even as the dune line at Jacksonville Beach was breached — precipitating significant tidal flooding through parts of that seaside city. But as with New Smyrna Beach, the situation would have been far worse for St. Augustine and Jacksonville if Matthew had made landfall and not remained off shore.

Matthew Delivers Severe Flooding to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia

As the storm passed just to the east of North Florida on October 7th, consensus model guidance at the time suggested that Matthew would re-curve out to sea after battering Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, returning for a possible second hit to Florida by about the 13th as a much weakened system. However, Matthew instead took a more northerly track — hugging the coastline. As a result, moderate to severe coastal flooding impacted beach after beach from Georgia and on through South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia even as heavy rains inundated the region.

(Matthew pushes storm surge flooding into Murrells Inlet — inundating local communities and swamping this marina. Video source: Huge Storm Surge Follows Hurricane Matthew.)

At Murrells Inlet — a late-summer and early fall reunion and beach-going spot for my family — over-wash from the ocean and tidal flooding from the local inlet pushed 1-2 feet of water into numerous neighborhoods. A local marina from which family members have enjoyed both the scenic view of the inlet and such water activities as kayaking through the teeming waterways to experience close-up encounters with local fish and wildlife was completely flooded out on the 8th of October as Matthew passed (see video above).

Meanwhile, severe flooding rains were just starting to sweep into North Carolina on the 8th and 9th — presenting a serious problem even as coastal communities along the Outer Banks received a significant battering. A large swath of the state saw up to 16 inches of rain fall. These rains hit regions already saturated by previous extreme rainfall events. As a result, water-logged grounds could not take in any more precipitation and rainfall runoff swiftly flooded streets and streams. The flooding has, by early Tuesday afternoon, left 14 people dead, three people missing, and thousands of homes inundated by rising waters. A severe flood situation that is still ongoing as of October 12th. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory stated earlier today that:  “Too many people have died, and we don’t want anymore to die. Yet there are going to be conditions during the next 72 hours which will be extremely dangerous.”


(Hundreds of vehicles, homes and businesses were flooded across Hampton Roads as a result of Matthew’s severe storm surge and heavy rainfall. The region has grown particularly vulnerable during recent years due to sea level rise — which has added about 1.5 feet of water rise over the past 100 years and could add another 2-3 feet or more by mid-Century under a business as usual fossil fuel burning emissions path. Image source: Hurricane Matthew Causes Widespread Flooding, Power Outages.)

On the 8th and 9th Matthew also began to hurl its flooding rains and storm surge at my parents’, grandparents’, and sister’s homes in the Hampton Roads cities of Norfolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth. A local river backing up to the Albermarle and Pamlico sounds rapidly filled with storm surge flooding — inundating my parents’ neighborhood and leaving them stranded. Flooding in Chesapeake also stranded my sister in her home. Flooding from heavy rains and a significant storm surge swept into houses on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach near my grandmother’s residence. Downtown Norfolk was shut down by storm flooding (see Granby street image above) and the heavy rains of Matthew combined with a previous severe rainfall event just two weeks ago to produce more than 30 inches of accumulated rainfall over the past 30 days for some parts of Hampton Roads. The result of Matthew’s combined heavy rains and storm surge for the region was never-before seen flooding for many areas — including my parents’ neighborhood.

Matthew and the Continuing Erosion of Normalcy

Thankfully, everyone I know is OK. But the same cannot be said for six people living in Florida and Georgia, 14 (and possibly more) people living in North Carolina, and over 1,000 people who are now thought to have lost their lives as Matthew made its first catastrophic landfall in Haiti. There, tens of thousands are estimated to be homeless as a result of the storm which leveled entire forests and towns as it roared ashore packing 130 mph sustained winds. Now, aid agencies are struggling to reach the survivors even as tropical diseases such as cholera threaten to spread in the unsanitary conditions following in the storm’s wake.


(Hurricane Matthew maintained strength as a major hurricane for the longest period of time on record for any October storm in the North Atlantic. Near record warm surface waters and a record warm and moist global atmosphere helped to enable Matthew to remain strong for such a long period of time — producing severe damage along a swath stretching for about 1,500 miles. Image source: WLXT.)

As a family, my relatives have suffered dislocation and some property damage from the storm. But we are among the fortunate ones. We did not experience the devastating material losses and loss of life that has impacted some in Haiti or North Carolina. However, what we have experienced is a loss of security. We’ve seen floods that have never happened before in the neighborhoods we occupy and in the places we have grown to love and cherish. And we find ourselves wondering what the next Matthew will bring — or the next, or the next.

Conditions in Context — Climate Change is Making Storms Like Matthew More Powerful and Devastating

Matthew was an extraordinarily powerful storm whose devastating toll will continue to be counted during the coming weeks and months along its broad and wide-ranging swath. But as we pick up the pieces, respond to the still ongoing disasters in North Carolina and Haiti, begin to rebuild, and try return to semi-normalcy, we should also seriously consider the conditions that helped to spawn Matthew and to bring about its record October intensity. For Matthew emerged over near-record hot waters, formed in a record hot world, and produced its damaging storm surges out of seas that are rising due to human-forced climate change.


(Rising sea levels spurred by global warming is an enabler of worsening coastal flooding during storms. In addition, added atmospheric moisture and ocean heat due to global warming increases peak potential storm intensity. Image source: Dr. James Hansen Warns Seas Could Rise by Several Meters This Century.)

Matthew’s heavy rains were unarguably pumped up by near record atmospheric moisture levels due to conditions related to climate change. And Matthew’s long, strong intensity was fed by all that climate change related heat and moisture. Like Sandy and Katrina, Matthew was a fore-runner to the worse storms that are now on the way. Storms made worse by our continued burning of fossil fuels and what is a wholesale global dumping of carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. Until that stops and the Earth starts to cool — freak events like Matthew and Sandy will continue to occur. To grow worse and to have their peak wind intensities pumped higher, their rains intensified, and their storms surges compounded by rising sea levels, larger storm circulations, and stronger wind fields.



Hurricane Matthew’s Toll Worsens: Flooding Hits North Carolina

Matthew’s Storm Surge Floods Downtown St. Augustine

Knee Deep Flooding in Murrells Inlet Neighborhoods

Huge Storm Surge Follows Hurricane Matthew in Murrells Inlet

Haiti Desperate For Help After Matthew

Hurricane Matthew’s Deadly Track From Haiti to the Carolinas

Hurricane Matthew Causes Widespread Flooding in Hampton Roads

Dr. James Hansen Warns Seas Could Rise by Several Meters This Century

Leave a comment


  1. Suzanne

     /  October 12, 2016

    We dodged a bullet in S. Fl. I was up most of the night as the winds howled, but that last minute wobble to the east saved the southeast coastline. I was grateful beyond measure, especially seeing what Hurricane Matthew had done to Haiti, and then later did to parts of N. Fl, S.C, and N.C.
    What kills me…is you should have heard all the griping going on by people in my area because they had done all that prep and nothing happened!!! I couldn’t believe what I heard and saw online with the complaining. I have lived through many hurricanes over my 50 years as a Floridian..and trust me it’s a lot easier to take precautions and have nothing happen …than the alternative. I have lived through damage…weeks without electricity…Trust me, it was like a miracle that there was no aftermath from Matthew. I was so relieved and grateful…then to hear all the complaining and finger pointing at the NHS…was shocking.
    I just don’t get people some times…

    • People need to understand that a forecast implies a bit of uncertainty. People tend to adopt an absolutist mindset. And that’s really not helpful. You’re absolutely right, Suzanne, everyone in South Florida should be breathing a big sigh of relief. They did dodge a bullet. And a pretty big hit at that.

  2. Kevin Jones

     /  October 12, 2016

    Looking at the forecast for the Pacific NW it appears we’re about to get our other ‘ear’ boxed.

  3. Greg

     /  October 12, 2016

    Welcome back Robert! We missed you. Very personal piece here. I have family there too on Delaware Ave, Norfolk Ave and in Pungo. Similar stories. Still arguing for them to wake up./ Next up is Bermuda with Hurricane Nicole and the Pacific Northwest for river of storms this weekend…

    • Thanks, Greg. Glad to hear everyone’s OK on your end as well. My family is a mostly coastal one. And Matthew impacted about 6 out of ten of my relatives. Pretty hair raising last five days to say the least. We’ve still got climate change deniers. But not so many as before.

  4. Cate

     /  October 12, 2016

    Robert, we are so glad to have you back and to know that you and yours are well and safe!

    On Monday, October 10 (Thanksgiving Day in Canada), Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island took a parting punch from what I’ve been calling Son of Matthew—the cold front that siphoned off Matthew’s moisture and dumped it all on us. Rainfall at Sydney, NS, was measured at 225 mm and in central Newfoundland at 180 mm. No-one had ever seen the likes before. These amounts would, I’m guessing, qualify for consideration as 1-in-1000 year events.

    Despite numerous road and bridge washouts, power outages, and some close calls, thankfully, and very luckily, no major damage was done, and no lives lost as far as I know.

    • 6 inches so far north? Just nuts! Glad to hear you’re OK Cate and thanks so much for the kind sentiments.

      I’ve just finished catching up with reading all the comment posts from the previous blog. Got to give everyone a sincere thanks for keeping the lights on here. There is just so much happening at the moment!

    • Andy_in_SD

       /  October 12, 2016

      Glad you’re ok Cate. Was thinking of you and everyone in Newfoundland when I saw that forecast of the dump.

  5. Glad to hear from you , Robert, and glad to see an overview of the aftermath of Matthew.
    Were you anywhere near the effects ofmthe storm?

    As always thanks for your information and insights.

    • Thanks, Sheri. I was mostly on the phone with relatives up and down the coast. Here in Maryland we only got a bit of rain. I do admit it’s weird to hear your mom saying ‘I’ve lived here for 20 years and we’ve never seen flooding like this…’ It’s surreal because I’ve been warning my folks that the rivers where they live back up to the sound and that the storms will probably get worse and sea level rise will make their neighborhood more and more vulnerable to tidal and storm surge flooding. Last week it looked like HR would dodge this one, but once it turned north and brought along that huge pile of water with it, I knew I had a lot of calls to make.

  6. Robert –
    Glad to hear that all your family is OK. Feeling for those who cannot say the same.

    Loss of security is something we all are feeling to a greater or lesser degree as AGW continues unabated and essentially unaddressed by our governments.

    Nice to have you back.

    • Thanks for the kind words, DaveW. It’s a bit rough writing about this subject. Primarily due to the fact that so many people don’t want to listen RE both the hazards and the solutions/mitigations. I was telling my mom that storms and climate change are similar in that everything seems OK at first. There’s a lot of noise and trouble, but the shelters we’ve constructed keep the first impacts out. And then, at some point, that shelter starts to break down. And that’s when things get bad.

  7. Oops, reread your entry, you answered my question about where you were.

  8. Andy_in_SD

     /  October 12, 2016

    It looks like the Arctic is having a bit of trouble building up sea ice (latent heat from absorption? Current anomalies?). Concurrently the Antarctic is trend towards the bottom of the -2 std dev line as it heads towards summer.

    It is as though the tempering effects of the polar regions are being overwhelmed in a noticeably measurable fashion.

    • We’re at +4.5 C above average in the region north of the 66th parallel for this time of year. That’s very extreme polar amplification for fall. It looks closer to a summer pattern for the Arctic than a typical fall pattern. Bob mentioned it on the other thread — winter is dying.

    • Cate

       /  October 12, 2016

      Re all that heat in the Arctic—been following the ASIF discussions and links about internal waves, turbulence, and mixing of ocean layers up there, as ocean heat builds and moves around. I don’t understand a fraction of it, so thankfully there is a study with a website, which kind of explains it in generalist terms. I dunno whether this mixing thing is in play this year, but it’s another piece of the puzzle, I guess.

      • Cate

         /  October 12, 2016

        The website covers 2015 research, but someone on the ASIF noted that they’re up there again this fall.

  9. Cate

     /  October 12, 2016

    In other news—-

    “a new mapping project has identified regions worldwide that are most susceptible to dramatic permafrost thaw formations, known as thermokarst, and the resulting release of greenhouse gases….
    University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers David McGuire and Vladimir Romanovsky were part of the project, which was led by University of Alberta researcher David Olefeldt. They found that about 20 percent of the globe’s northern permafrost region is potential thermokarst landscape. The research can be used in infrastructure and ecosystem planning and greenhouse gas modeling.”

    The thermokarst landscape map is available to anyone through the online site hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

  10. Ridley Jack

     /  October 12, 2016

    Mr Scribble if you had to make an assumption what do you think the global temperatures for September and October will end up being. I think September will become the warmest September on record beating last years 0.90 but October might FINALLY break the streak of monthly temperatures because last years October was 1.07 that’s going to be tough to beat, Anyway I think this year will finish at 1.25 above 1880s values which would result at 1.05. 2015 according to Nasa was 0.87 or 1.07 above 1880s values if 1.05 is the outcome that’s a 0.18 increase in one year and if you include 2014 0.74 that’s 0.31 in two years I realize the El Nino had a part in this but I’m really curious to see if 2017 is a neutral year if it can beat 2015 and become the second warmest year on record behind 2016. Sorry if it seems confusing. Thanks

    • SEP = +0.90 or +1.12 above 1880s according to GISS as of today.
      OCT = appears likely to hit around +0.80 to +0.95. My bet being closer to +0.85, but we’ll see.

  11. Good to known that you and yours are safe, Robert!

  1. Four Thousand Mile Long River of Moisture Could Dump 2 Feet of Rain on The Pacific Northwest | robertscribbler
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