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Beware the Tides on New Year's Eve : Expert Warns of Possible Flooding Along Coast

August 25, 1986|NANCY RAY | Times Staff Writer

BONITA, Calif. — Fergus J. Wood, a retired government meteorologist, has a dilemma.

He has scientific evidence that severe tides could rise up next New Year's Eve and wreak havoc along low-lying coastal areas and, if they hit without warning, take a heavy toll. But he's not quite sure what to do with that information.

Wood, a Bonita resident and former National Ocean Survey official, has written a thick book on tidal movements based on the relative positions of the earth, moon and sun--a major factor in the ebb and flow of the earth's oceans. The next date when the oceans are most likely to surge, he says, is Dec. 31.

Wood's projections are based on solar-lunar positions that are so stable that they can be predicted for decades in advance--an exercise that Wood has accomplished through the year 2064.

Concurrent Celestial Events

What he contends, and other experts don't contradict him, is that when two celestial events occur at about the same time, tides around the world rise higher and more swiftly--and, if combined by heavy onshore winds--can cause severe damage.

The two events are perigee and syzygy. In layman's language, perigee (pronounced PAIR-ah-gee) is the point when the moon in its irregular orbit most closely approaches earth, increasing its gravitational power over tidal movements by its proximity.

Syzygy (pronounced SIZZ-ah-gee) refers to the near alignment of the sun, moon and earth--an event that also increases the lunar-solar impact on the earth's tides.

When these two events occur within hours or even within days of each other, record tidal surges occur.

Events Vary Greatly

Wood has coined the word "proxigee" to define the coinciding of the two events, and he has charted the occurrences back to the 9th Century, documenting historical evidence of coastal flooding coinciding with the proxigean tides. Such events, in greatly varying degrees, occur at intervals of roughly 1 1/2 years.

In 1635, for instance, a historian in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, recorded a proxigean event, describing how the sea appeared to swell and how the Indians took to the trees.

More recently, a three-day storm that occurred March 5-7, 1962, along the Atlantic coast--packing 70-m.p.h. winds--coincided with the high, strong tides resulting from near-concurrence of perigee-syzygy. The storm caused coastal property damage from South Carolina to Maine that reached $500 million and killed 40 people.

Winds Are the 'Trigger'

The same conditions of perigee and syzygy that existed in March, 1962, will recur during the three days around New Year's Eve, according to Wood.

But what cannot be predicted is whether the strong, steady onshore winds--the trigger--will also be present. Without it, Wood noted, the proxigean tides could just be gentle giants, lapping higher on the shoreline, possibly causing little more than some minor flooding.

So, what should he do? Say nothing? Issue another warning?

In late 1973, Wood delivered a flood warning after a public information officer with the National Ocean Survey, where Wood was employed at the time, asked him to name the date of the next perigee-syzygy event.

Although Wood had also issued a disclaimer that the proxigean event could produce nothing more than higher tides unless the winds misbehaved, the date he named--Jan. 8, 1974--became a worldwide coastal flood watch.

'Got Out of Hand'

"It all just got out of hand. I had calls from all over, even a cablegram from South America somewhere," Wood recalled. "It started with stories on Associated Press and United Press that went all over. It was even in a paper in Kansas, if you can imagine anyone in Kansas being interested in tides."

Sure enough, a storm system along the Southern California coast brought heavy flooding. And several days later, the same tides caused flooding on the west coast of England and the north and west coasts of Europe.

"We felt vindicated," he said. "But the way the news was handled--sensationalized and with many of the cautionary statements left out--is something that must not be allowed to happen again."

Never Made a 'Prediction'

Wood has never made a "prediction" of coastal flooding because he cannot predict in advance the meteorological conditions that will occur. But, because the New Year's Eve event so nearly matches the 1962 proxigean tide levels, he hopes that coastal residents will be alert to the potential dangers of flooding.

A strong onshore storm blowing in from the far reaches of the Pacific could raise tidal surges by 20% to 40% while, at the same time, an offshore wind could counteract the thrust of the abnormally high tides predicted for next Dec. 31, he noted.

Wood pointed out that perigee and syzygy will occur only four hours apart on New Year's Eve--the same close timing that occurred during the severe tides of 1962.

After the 1986 proxigee, Wood's charts show another "window of vulnerability" on Oct. 14, 1989, and a series of extreme proxigean tides due Dec. 2, 1990, Jan. 2, 1992 and March 8, 1993.

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