EEAS Prof. Mathew Barlow Leads Storms, Precipitation, Flooding and Groundwater Section of Report

Matt Barlow research Image by Edwin L. Aguirre
EEAS Prof. Mathew Barlow played an instrumental part in the latest climate change assessment for the Greater Boston area.

By Brooke Coupal

Environmental, Earth & Atmospheric Sciences Prof. Mathew Barlow is helping people understand the future of climate change on a local level so they can take appropriate steps toward mitigation and preparation.

Barlow is one of dozens of researchers who contributed to a new report, Climate Change Impacts and Projections for the Greater Boston Area, that features an assessment of likely climate changes for the 101 cities and towns that make up the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission region.

Barlow, who is a member of the Climate Change Initiative steering committee, led the Storms, Precipitation, Flooding and Groundwater section of the report, which was published by UMass Boston. His team, which included UML Asst. Research Prof. Laurie Agel ’08, ’18, examined results from existing peer-reviewed research to make projections on climate change in the area.

“All the people involved do their own separate research projects, most of which are related to this,” says Barlow, who researched extreme precipitation in the Northeast as part of a $454,000 National Science Foundation grant. “We periodically come together to do this assessment, with the idea being that you have the expertise because you do the research.”

One of his team’s biggest findings was that extreme precipitation is going to intensify with climate change.

“The most extreme storms are going to get more extreme in terms of precipitation,” says Barlow.

As the intensity of storms heightens, the variability of weather conditions is also expected to increase, Barlow says. He and his team predict that the region may see more short-term droughts as well as heavier floods.

“A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, so when there’s a lot of water around, you have a higher limit on storms, but when there’s not a lot of water around, it’s really hot and you get a lot of drying,” he says. “So, you pinball back and forth between the extremes. We’ve seen a fair amount of flooding in New England the last two years, and right now, we’re in the midst of a drought, so that’s representative.”

Flooding can be devastating for communities. Not only can sanitation issues arise when sewer water mixes with rainwater, but flooding can cause infrastructure damage and result in mold. Plus, in high flood waters, emergency services often struggle to maneuver through the streets.

In addition to precipitation-related flooding, coastal towns are at risk of sea-level rise and higher storm surges.

Barlow says the key takeaway of the report is the need to act urgently in terms of preparing for climate change and working toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. Municipalities are encouraged to use this report to pursue carbon mitigation efforts and climate resilience strategies.

“I don’t want people to come away feeling that it’s too late and there’s nothing we can do. We’re not doomed,” says Barlow. “We have lots of things that we can do to prevent catastrophic climate change.”