This month’s stretch of heavy rains that culminated with severe thunderstorms last weekend to cause flooding and damage may not necessarily mean the region ran afoul of the old TV commercial’s admonition that “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” But, when considered in context, they certainly are both a reminder that Mother Nature can pack a wallop and a warning that the wallop’s becoming increasingly volatile and more frequently extreme.
The recent rains and flooding by themselves should be cautionary. By this past mid-week, according to National Weather Service data, over 13 inches had fallen in Keene this month, already making it the wettest July on record stretching back over available data to 1893. The slow-moving system of thunderstorms that moved through last weekend contributed more than 5 inches to the monthly total, and it hit other parts of the region even harder, with Jaffrey recording almost 8 inches. The Monadnock Region has long been prone to flooding, so the effect on the hardest hit communities is no surprise, with road washouts and closures from Peterborough to Hinsdale, some homes being evacuated and businesses forced to close and many a basement underwater.
Making July’s heavy rains even more remarkable is that they came on the heels of June’s swelter. Then, several stretches of abnormally high temperatures and humidity, once more typical of late summer, capped off a long stretch of dry conditions that by June’s end had southwestern New Hampshire considered to be either abnormally dry or in moderate drought. This month’s rain provided some respite from the drought concerns — the U.S. Drought Monitor no longer reports the southern part of the state as abnormally dry — but the rest of New Hampshire from upper Sullivan County and the Lakes Region to the north remain abnormally dry or in moderate-to-severe drought. And it’s still uncertain even locally whether this month’s rains will have sufficiently replenished groundwater sources to ease concerns about its supply.
What can’t be ignored is the frequency with which extreme weather patterns are occurring. Keene and the Monadnock Region were hit by major flooding in 2005 and 2012 and skirted disaster in 2011, when nearby Vermont towns were devastated by Hurricane Irene. With temperatures on the rise generally, hotter conditions and accompanying dry spells are likely to increase flooding risk from heavy rains. N.H. State Climatologist Mary Stampone noted that as extreme weather swings become more common due to climate change — “dry becomes drier” and warmer temperatures then mean “wet becomes wetter,” she told The Sentinel — heavier rainfall more readily results in surface runoff and overflow of lakes and streams and, thus, flooding.
The recent broader national and worldwide context while the heavy rains were falling here also can’t be ignored. Swaths of the western United States have been locked in prolonged, record-setting extreme heat, often well into triple digits, that has sparked devastating wildfires. And flooding of unprecedented levels has ravaged Germany and other parts of Europe in recent weeks and accounted for at least about 200 deaths.
Fortunately, last weekend’s flooding resulted in no fatalities here, but the damage it caused is still being tallied. In the aftermath, area communities will have to reassess whether their planning adequately incorporates the likelihood of increasingly volatile and extreme weather. The major Otter Brook and Surry dams operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seem to have handled the recent storms effectively. But in Keene, although the city has devoted much attention to Beaver Brook since the 2005 and 2012 flooding, the amount of flooding in East Keene and elsewhere suggests even more might be necessary. And concerns about small dams and their condition, such as the Wilson Pond dam in Swanzey, must be addressed.
Mother Nature’s message that extreme weather volatility is now the norm has become insistently clear. Knowing that, not planning for it will be trying to fool her and risks her wrath.