Nor’easter vs. Coastal Delaware

When Delawareans think of catastrophic local storm events, they often come back to the infamous “Storm of ‘62” / “Ash Wednesday Storm”— a level 5 nor’easter that occurred in the Mid-Atlantic region from March 6 – 8, 1962. During its wrath, waves battered Delaware’s shores, destroying homes, boardwalks, and roadways in an impressive show of mother nature’s power.

This weekend’s nor’easter (Winter Storm Riley) might not be the “Storm of ‘62”,

but it’s still packing quite a punch.


So far, our area has seen driving rain, high winds, and some wintery mix. It may seem like this storm will blow through and be done. But Winter Storm Riley has a trick up its sleeve: tides.

Coastal Highway (Rt1) between Dewey and the Indian River Bridge during a nor’easter in September of 2016.

As the tides ebb and flow throughout the next few hours and days, coastal flooding on both the bay and ocean sides will be enough to cause concern. A tide—the vertical rise and fall of the water—is created by a combination of incredible forces. This includes (but is not limited to) the celestial dance of the earth, the sun, and the moon.

In fact, the moon’s influence on tides is over twice that of the sun (although much smaller than the sun, the moon it is much closer to the earth). As it so happens, right now, we’ve just experienced a full moon! This means our “high” tides are even higher than normal. And on top of THAT….we’re experiencing sea level rise.

Sea level on Delaware’s coast has risen over the past 1,000 years at an estimated rate of 0.3 feet per century—an already worrying rate which has only accelerated in the last 100 years. Overall, our state has seen a total rise of more than one foot since 1900. That spells bad news for beach homes, boardwalks, roads, and local residents.

Don’t let the small numbers fool you…

the Inland Bays are already experiencing

the effects of this extra foot.


In combination with sinking land and already low land elevation, sea level rise is increasingly contributing to Delaware’s shoreline erosion, the drowning of tidal wetlands, and increased flood events.

Will Winter Storm Riley reach the infamy of The Ash Wednesday Storm? Unlikely. But as sea level rise continues, we can expect to see coastal flooding become a more formidable foe. 

That being said, we can adapt by building less in and around low-lying areas—and by turning to nature!

Wetlands naturally protect surrounding land from flood events by trapping and slowly releasing floodwaters. To better protect our beautiful coastal home, we must encourage Sussex County to increase buffer requirements between new development and the wetlands and waters as well as consider making public investments in protecting and restoring these vital resources.

Looking north by Little Assawoman Bay on a calm summer day vs March 2, 2018.


Posted Under: Staff Blog