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Using Drones to Fight Floods

The dam failure disaster in Michigan in May of 2020, as horrendous as it was, is also a shining example of a new technology being used to fight floods safely. Without the use of unmanned drones, humans would have had to put themselves at grave risk in the nerve-wracking moments before the levee collapsed. Today, drones are used in many ways to predict floods, show the path of the flood in progress, and to survey the damage after the flood — all without risk to human safety. Drones are without a doubt one of the most important developments in the history of flood control.

Although drones have been around — in a very rudimentary form — since at least 1849, it is only in the past 30 years that improvements in the areas of miniaturization and computerization have enabled drones to become smaller, more agile, and most importantly — more controllable for precise maneuvers. Drones are able to fly over dams and levees that are at risk of collapse, and send back images and other information that can inform officials. In the past, it was necessary to send a human on this risky journey: to physically walk along the top of a shuddering dam to assess the situation or even to open flood gates and remove debris by hand. Many people have lost their lives in heroic efforts to prevent a dam from failing catastrophically, but today we are able to send a drone to complete the inspection and a lot more. In fact, drones can do far more than humans were ever able to do, and much, much faster.

Before drones entered the scene, helicopters were sometimes utilized to fly over suspected infrastructure trouble spots, but the shortcomings of this option are obvious. Helicopters are far more expensive to operate, and they are manned, which always carries a safety risk- especially during inclement weather. Helicopters also lack the tight maneuverability that drones can bring to the table, and since drones are much smaller, they can fly into areas that would be impossible for even the smallest manned helicopter. Drones are also able to fly much closer to the ground, can fly within feet of a threatened dam, and can send back high-definition video in real time.

Today drones are invaluable in the area of dam maintenance and inspection, roof inspection, loose hillside and avalanche inspection, and many other applications. During dam inspection sorties, drones can identify minor issues like hairline cracks and areas of hidden or hard-to-detect leakage before these issues become dangerous. They can fly very close to the face of a massive dam, covering every square foot of the surface, all the while sending back digital information from this vertical and inaccessible structure. Drones can safely inspect dams when snow-covered roads prevent close access with traditional vehicles, and they can do all this without risk to human health and safety. The only caveat regarding drone use is that they are currently prohibited by law from flying outside of the line of sight of the operator. This is an issue that may change soon as the technology becomes more fine tuned.

Drones have proven invaluable as a provider of aerial, ‘bird’s eye view’ information, but there are also specialized underwater drones that can collect and transit data from the submerged base of the dam. This underwater surveillance work, which was until recently conducted by human scuba divers, is critical to the maintenance and safety of the huge and complex hydroelectric dam systems. Underwater drones can approach particular sections of the submerged structure even while other sections remain in operation, an undertaking that would be too dangerous for human divers. With the aid of this rapidly improving technology, engineers can today identify problems with dams and levees before they result in disastrous floods downstream.


The Rapid City Flash Flood

Image: Aftermath of the flash flood of June 9-10, 1972, Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo: NOAA

Rapid City, South Dakota was a medium-sized city of about 40,000 residents in 1972. The city had been founded a century earlier, after an expedition led by General George Custer had discovered gold in the surrounding Black Hills. A town sprang up in service to the hordes of fortune seekers who toiled for gold in the inhospitable terrain, and it was named after the Rapid Creek, which ran straight through the new town. Rapid City was touted as the ‘Gateway to the Black Hills’ by a group of promoters who were seeking opportunities other than digging for gold themselves. Almost exactly 100 years after the town was founded, the normally inconsequential creek that ran through Rapid City would all but destroy its namesake.

By early June of 1972, the ground in and around Rapid City had become fully saturated by heavy rainfall from the previous few days. Then, a series of conditions — each of which would have amounted to nothing on its own — began to collide. First, a low-altitude flow of moist air was forced up the steep, rocky slopes of the Black Hills, producing a condition called an ‘orographic lift’. An orographic lift happens when air is pushed from a low elevation to a high elevation, rapidly cooling the air as it gains altitude. This sudden cooling of the air creates clouds, quickly raises humidity to 100%, and produces rain. On this day of June 9, 1972, the entire set of variables was complicated by the lack of winds that are normally present at high altitudes over the Black Hills. So now, as this fateful day drew to a close, an orographic lift was setting up thunderstorms that would hover immobile over the area- and all that precipitation was about to fall on soggy, super-saturated soil.

When rain began to fall on the afternoon of June 9, it received little notice. The past few days had been rainy, so this was just a little more rain during an already rainy week. The fact that the rain began during the late afternoon was one more unlucky detail in a very catastrophic series of events. The downpour continued through the afternoon and evening, and into the night. But because night had fallen, people were unaware of just how much water was falling from the sky, and could not see how much runoff had been produced, and how quickly it was filling creeks, reservoirs, and any low-lying gulches. Most of the residents of Rapid City were sound asleep in their beds when disaster struck around midnight.

In a few short hours between the start of the storms at 3:30 and the explosive arrival of the flash flood at midnight, a lot had been happening. The main problem was the sheer volume of the precipitation: up to an incredible 12” of rain had been dumped on the sodden soil in and around Rapid City, an amount that even dry, absorbent soil would not be able to soak up. All that water immediately filled every creek and gully in the area, and began pulsing downstream, pushing before it a massive amount of debris. This debris piled up against any dam, bridge, or embankment that stood in its way, and in the case of the Canyon Lake Dam, created an unstable blockage that caused the lake to rise 11 feet in a few hours. Then it broke.

The massive wall of water that struck the sleeping town caused an unimaginable amount of damage. Trees, vehicles, boulders, bridges, and even sturdy buildings were swept away in minutes. There was no warning, and 238 people lost their lives as their homes were washed away like sand castles on the beach. Over 3000 others were injured, many grievously. The town of Rapid City was scraped clean, and it all happened in minutes. Five hours later, when the dawn revealed the horrors of the night, the creek had already returned to its normal level — this one of the incredible hallmarks of a flash flood. On June 10th, witnesses described scenes of incomprehensible damage. Over 1000 homes had been swept away, and almost 3000 others were damaged. 5000 cars had also been carried off, as well as all but a couple of the many bridges that served the area. The damage in terms of monetary loss was dire — estimated at around $165 million. This, combined with the considerable loss of human lives and livelihoods, means that the Rapid City Flash Flood still stands to this day as one of the worst flash floods in US history.

Catastrophic Floods Strike New York and New Jersey

Image: Long Island Expressway in New York City shut down due to flash flooding from Post-Tropical Storm Ida’s landfall. Photo: Tommy Gao via Wikimedia Commons

August 19, 2021 was the 16th anniversary of the most destructive and deadly hurricane on record for the USA: Hurricane Katrina. On this day, as if to acknowledge the anniversary, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, coming in as a dangerous CAT-4 storm. In a few days, Ida would go on the record books as the 2nd most destructive storm in US history, after Katrina. The passage into the record books was a strange and circuitous journey.

With massive preparation efforts and evacuation orders arranged before the landfall, officials were hoping against hope that there would not be another disaster like Katrina. But the signs were not looking good, and with wind gusts of up to 172mph, this storm would be a monster in its own right. After striking shore in Louisiana, Ida maintained its CAT-4 status over land for about four hours, and then it weakened to a still-dangerous CAT-3. As the storm unleashed an almost incomprehensible amount of precipitation on the area, the hurricane-force winds tore homes and businesses to splinters. Power lines went down like dominoes, and those who had defied the mandatory evacuation order- as well as all those who had been unable to leave- began to suffer through the sweltering heat without AC, refrigeration, gasoline, medications, and perishable food staples like milk and meat. But still, Ida was not done- not by a long shot!

As FEMA officials in the Deep South began to release a sigh of relief that the initial death toll appeared to be very low, Hurricane Ida veered to the northeast- a heavily populated region for which large hurricanes are a relatively rare event. As the storm moved on, through Mississippi, Alabama, the mid-Atlantic states into Virginia and Maryland, the main concern was tornado activity. This fear was not unfounded, and at least seven tornadoes touched down in Alabama alone. Another tornado in Maryland caused significant damage to the Capitol city of Annapolis. But even now, Ida had not wrought even half of the damage and loss of life that would ultimately be tallied to this storm. It was in the states of New York and New Jersey where the storm would make its deadly mark.

Almost as soon as the storm arrived in New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio pronounced it, “…an historic weather event”, and for good reason. In just a couple of hours, 6-10” of rain fell in the NYC area, and the consequences were dire. Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens were almost immediately flooded. Rainwater gushed into the subway system and produced nightmarish scenes of underground stations being quickly filled with water. The trains attempted to push through the water to get out of the subterranean death traps that had once been safe, dry tunnels. City buses were seen plowing through water so deep that passengers had to stand on the seats to stay above the water. Central Park was pounded with over 3” of rain in just one hour, breaking a record that had stood since 1913. That same historical record had also been broken two weeks earlier by Tropical Storm Henri, and now that brand-new record from Henri was already obliterated. It was truly a 100-year flood event in New York City!

Both New York and New Jersey declared a state of emergency before the day was out. But why was Hurricane Ida causing even more destruction in this northern area, more than a thousand miles from where the storm made landfall? The answer is this: bad luck. By the time Ida reached the New York/New Jersey region, the hurricane-force winds had long since lost strength. But the core of the storm was still packed with rain, and then it unfortunately merged with another localized storm front. When this happens, massive amounts of precipitation is often the result, and we saw this in New York and New Jersey. The damage in the New York City alone will top $50 million. But more importantly, 18 people lost their lives, and many of those unfortunates lived in basement apartments that lacked any type of flood barriers.

Ten years ago, Hurricane Sandy laid waste to the New York area, and the aftermath of that storm led to calls for better planning and improvements in flood defenses. Many new mitigation efforts have since been put into place, but Hurricane Ida has exposed the wide gap between what has been done and what still needs to be done. This month, during Hurricane Ida, New York City faced its first-ever Flash Flood Emergency. It will surely not be the last.

Moon Wobble Means Flood Trouble

Photo: High tide sunny day flooding in Miami, Florida. (Photo credit: B137, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many news outlets are reporting on a ‘new’ moon wobble that will result in an increase in coastal flooding in the coming decade. In reality, the lunar wobble is not new at all; it was first discovered in the early 1700’s. Today, scientists understand that the wobble appears on a regular schedule, and it is known to reoccur every 18.6 years. What is new is our planet’s unprecedented and rapid global climate change. This, combined with the regularly occurring moon wobble, will likely result in devastating coastal flooding around the world during the near future.

To gain an understanding of how the moon wobble will affect coastal flooding, we must recall how the moon influences our tides. The moon, in its regular orbit around the Earth, exerts a pull on our planet. This pull is gravitational in nature, and the pull is felt differently in various parts of the globe and on various objects- depending on the latitude and the nature of the object. The ocean, being a non-solid entity, is far more malleable and yielding than firm land. The seas stretch and contract under the push and pull of the gravitational forces exerted by the moon, and this produces our regular and predictable tidal process.

At times, the routine pull of the lunar gravitational force combines with other celestial influences, and a ‘spring tide’ occurs. The spring tide has nothing to do with the season of spring, but instead refers to the ‘springing forth’ of the tides. The spring tide occurs when the earth, the sun, and the moon are all in alignment- this causes a much greater than usual gravitational pull on the oceans. During this time, the regular high tides that occur twice each day will be even higher. If the spring tide is combined with other factors, the tides can become destructively high, especially during our current situation of rising sea level. Stir all these variables together, and we have a recipe for disaster when the moon wobble is added to the mix.

The next moon wobble cycle will occur in the coming decade, during the 2030’s. Scientists are warning that this natural phenomenon, combined with the other factors mentioned above, will almost certainly result in major damage to infrastructure, displacement of entire communities, and significant property damage and destruction. But how can a ‘moon wobble’ result in all these dire consequences? Let’s take a look at the moon wobble and how it will affect our tides.

During the first half of the moon wobble cycle, tides are suppressed, and are generally lower than normal. During this phase, the regular high tides will be lower than normal, and the low tides are higher than normal. However, in the second half of the moon wobble cycle, the reverse occurs: high tides are intensified, and the low tides become even lower. The difference between high tide and low tide becomes much greater. But most importantly, the high tides that will come during the second half of the moon wobble cycle will now coincide with those other factors that have already augmented high tide levels.

Rising sea levels, glacial ice melt, and changes in ocean and air currents will make this next moon wobble a dangerous brew. In recent years, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association has recorded about 600 high tide floods annually. However, during the second half of the moon wobble cycle, they are predicting three to four times that many, during the 2030’s. If ever there was a good time to fortify flood protection measures, this relatively calm and quiet decade is it- the coming decade will be too late.

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