Hurricane Sandy: Is climate change to blame?

Image credit: GOES satellite image provided by NASA. Hurricane Sandy churns off the East Coast on Monday morning, Oct. 29, 2012.

“Our climate is changing and while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” – New York City Mayor Bloomberg in Bloomberg View

When I read this quote by Mayor Bloomberg, I appreciated it and was proud of his boldness (especially as a former New York resident). It’s exactly the kind of leadership we should expect from our decision-makers. I also know that such boldness comes as a result of witnessing something so profound, that you must act. This eyewitness experience is exactly what called Will Steger into action in 2006 when he established the Will Steger Foundation to address climate change, as he was witnessing the disintegration of ice shelves, the polar sea ice and his Arctic home.

As recovery efforts are underway to address the impact of Hurricane Sandy, people are asking what role climate change plays in influencing such storms.

Oceans have absorbed much more of the excess heat from climate change than land and scientists understand that when hurricanes form, higher water temperatures can energize them and make them more powerful. Warming is also causing the atmosphere to hold more moisture and concentrate precipitation in stronger storms, including hurricanes. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, it retained much of its strength as it tracked across ocean water that was 9 degrees (F) warmer than average for this time of year.

More broadly climate change is increasing sea levels globally, which affects all coastal storms, including hurricanes. Locally, sea level rise along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts has been among the highest in the world. Additionally, Hurricane Sandy made landfall during a full-moon high tide, which further drove storm surges that caused extensive coastal flooding. With continued warming, such high tides will become higher and more damaging.

The link between extreme weather and climate change is the subject of much ongoing research. A special report on extreme weather from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released this summer concluded that coastal flooding and more extreme precipitation were strongly linked to human-induced climate change and are expected to get worse in the future. By contrast, scientists can have only “low confidence” when it comes to the historical link between hurricanes and climate change.

In the future, the report said, it’s likely that heavy rainfalls associated with hurricanes will become more intense. Overall, hurricane strength – measured as wind speed – is likely to increase while the frequency of hurricane formation is likely to either remain unchanged or decrease.

It’s important to remember these basic facts:

  1. Climate change is changing the weather. The past few years have been marked by unusually severe extreme weather characteristic of climate change.
  2. Climate change puts more energy into storms.  Climate change loads storms, including hurricanes, with extra rainfall, making flooding more likely.
  3. With climate change, we will see an increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, but not all weather events are directly attributed to climate change.
  4. We are already seeing a rise in sea surface temperatures. For instance, sea surface temperatures along the Northeast U.S. coast are about 5°F above average, which is likely to help keep the storm powered up and load moisture into the storm, fueling heavy rain. September had the second highest global ocean temperatures on record. In the Northeast United States, sea levels are rising up to four times faster than the global average, making this area more vulnerable to storm surge and flooding.
  5. Climate change has stacked the deck, making this kind of event more likely to occur, and will only get worse unless we reduce our carbon pollution.
  6. We can address the threat of climate change through individual actions, strong political leadership, and policies that encourage energy efficiency and conservation solutions, while also embracing the transition to low-carbon energy options, including renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind and solar.

As Mayor Bloomberg so eloquently stated, regardless of the role of climate change in events like these, we are going to continue to experience the ramifications of a changing climate. The costs of inaction are far greater than the costs of addressing climate change. We need bold political leadership. Our elected leaders cannot keep the issue silent any longer.



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