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Earth Day 2022: Meteorologists eyeing more extreme weather events

Earth Day: Meteorologists tracking more extreme weather events 04:01

NEW YORK -- Major storms are becoming more common, leaving destruction across our area.

CBS2's Lonnie Quinn looks at what's causing this change in the forecast. 

Many of us watch the weather with a different eye these days. It seems more often than not a forecast of rain or snow turns into a major event. All you have to do is look at the precipitation extremes of the last several years.

"It's along the lines of when it rains, it pours," David Robinson, New Jersey's State Climatologist at Rutgers University, told Quinn. "Excessive precipitation events have become more common over the last two decades or so. You can look back in the Northeast to Floyd in '99, Irene was a major event in 2011, and of course, Ida in September 1st of 2021."

Here's a little more detail: Floyd was a Category-4 hurricane that dropped more than 13 inches of rain. Irene was a tropical storm, but over a 48-hour period, it destroyed hundreds of homes and vital infrastructure. 

Last year, Hurricane Ida broke rainfall records, as more than 3 inches fell in just over an hour. Rushing waters flooded subways and streets, and trapped people in their homes. 

And only days before Ida hit, there was Henri, landing a one-two punch that devastated the Northeast.

"There was a time we would say, 'Hey, there's a big storm coming,' and people would kind of poo-poo it," Quinn asked fellow Meteorologist Joe Rao.

"Whenever we talk about flash flood watch or flash flood advisory or warning, people immediately are going to register in their minds -- 'What happened with Ida? Is this going to be like Ida, in terms of potential flooding?'" Rao replied.

Quinn joined Rao at the historic Belvedere Castle in Central Park. While it's one of the park's most iconic structure, for more than a century it has also been a critical New York weather recording station. 

"We're able to see now storm systems, major storms, mega storms that we're seeing now in recent years, and make comparisons to the storms that we had using, again, this same location, the same equipment 40, 50 years ago, 60 years. We were able to tell whether or not we're seeing greater amounts of rain," Rao explained. 

It is essential to weather reporting to establish these benchmarks for both daily forecasting and larger weather events.

But even with state-of-the-art technology at Belvedere and in our own station weather center, some storms just defy prediction.

"The forecasting of those very isolated storms that stall and sit in one place is still a long way from coming to any kind of high precision," said Robinson.

Robinson mentioned an extraordinary 2014 rain storm over Long Island that took everyone by surprise. 

"To know that that would have set up on that particular day and it would have set up over Islip is just beyond our means," he said.

That training storm pummeled a relatively small area with nearly 14 inches in less than 24 hours. At its peak, almost two inches of rain fell in just nine minutes. 

There will likely be more extreme precipitation in our future, say the experts. One reason: As the Earth gets warmer, more water evaporates from oceans and land, setting a potential scene for wetter weather with all the moisture now being held in the atmosphere.

"We have had extreme weather events since the beginning of time... But we're seeing them now with greater frequency, or with greater magnitude, I'd say," Robinson said. "And we expect to see that pattern continue to increase."

Meanwhile, the science of forecasting is also getting better. Improving satellites and radar may not prevent dangerous weather, but they can mean earlier warnings to the public, helping to get people out of harm's way.

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