How the Water Cycle Impacts the Weather and Our Ocean

Wild downpours, terrifying floods, waves overtopping lighthouses… What’s going on with water and what can we do about it?

“How’s the weather?” may have once been the most common conversation starter on the planet. Recently though, that simple question launches stories about one thing: Water. Friends, family and coworkers bring out their phones to show me pictures of wild downpours and terrifying floods, waves overtopping lighthouses, people stranded on the tops of their cars and houses floating away on the tides. These are not distant stories but personal experiences. Water seems to be on everyone’s mind. Let’s take a closer look at the water cycle and how it impacts the weather and our ocean. 

Record-breaking ocean temperatures

As air currents pass over the ocean, they pick up moisture before passing over land or converging with storm systems and producing precipitation. As ocean waters warm, more water evaporates into the air, which then results in more intense and frequent rain or snow. As climates continue to change, wet areas are projected to get wetter and dry areas will get drier. Although the total precipitation in an area may not substantially increase, cities could experience an entire month’s worth of rain in a single storm. Beyond increasingly severe hurricanes, the changing climate and ocean will impact our relationship to water along the coast,  in our communities and throughout entire watersheds.

Bombogenesis (bomb cyclones)

Although it is a fun word to say, “bombogenesis” or “bomb cyclones” are having seriously negative impacts on our climate. When cold air and warm air collide, this can trigger a rapid intensification of a midlatitude cyclone leading to torrential downpours. Due to a warming climate and warmer ocean waters, bomb cyclones are increasing in frequency and severity during our winters. 

Atmospheric rivers

Similarly, atmospheric rivers are carrying more moisture due to climate change. Imagine the Mississippi River except in the sky and even more massive—atmospheric rivers can stretch more than 300 miles wide and transport 15 times the amount of water flowing out of the Mississippi. When an atmospheric river makes landfall, it dumps huge amounts of water across the landscape. When the atmospheric river hits mountains, the moisture rich air is forced up in elevation, causing it to cool, condense and lose its capacity to hold all that moisture. This massive amount of condensed moist air then falls as heavy precipitation, overwhelming communities and infrastructure before it eventually flows back into the ocean.

Impacts of severe flooding

Extreme rainfall has dangerous implications for coastal and marine environments and the people who depend upon them. The unpredictable and intense precipitation caused by atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones overwhelms landscapes with flash flood events that often occur too quickly to be adequately absorbed by the ground. Instead of recharging the depleted aquifers and reducing drought, this water overwhelms the watershed and floods back out to the ocean, causing landslides and destruction in its wake. When extreme rainfall and high tides or storm surge occur at the same time, they overwhelm our crumbling water infrastructure resulting in dangerous pollutants, plastics and sewage flowing into rivers and the ocean. 

What can we do to protect communities and the ocean?

  1. Address the water quality challenges.
    Water infrastructure is aging across the country. With increasingly severe storms and coastal flooding, water quality is a major concern for public and ecosystem health. Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving funds is critical to coastal resilience.
  2. Fund nature-based solutions
    Restoring habitat and installing green infrastructure like bioswales, living shorelines and oyster reefs can mitigate stormwater flooding, protect coastlines and allow aquifers to recharge. Hardened, gray infrastructure can result in worse flooding downstream and erosion along the coast. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fund and permit implementation of green climate solutions.
  3. Reduce emissions.
    The more greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, the worse the severe storms and flooding will get. We can slow down ocean warming by switching to renewable energy sources and reducing energy consumption by changing to more efficient options. The Infrastructure Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law gave the American people billions of dollars to act on climate and protect our oceans. We need to use these dollars to strengthen our water infrastructure!

Ocean Conservancy’s climate team is on the front lines of the fight to protect our ocean, marine wildlife and the communities that depend on it. But we can’t do it without you. Take action now to help us create a healthy ocean for generations to come. 

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