Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change

ATHENS, GEORGIA – In the waning weeks of the North American hurricane season – a time when a superstorm is not expected to cause widespread damage to the eastern coast of the United States – Hurricane Sandy is a grim reminder of the menace of extreme weather events. With the lowest central pressure of the 2012 hurricane season, Sandy may have caused up to $20 billion in damages, making it one of the costliest superstorms in history.

Sandy interacted with a weather system moving toward it from the east, posing difficult challenges for forecasters and nearly unprecedented weather conditions for the region. A similar storm hit New England 20 years ago. But Sandy was worse, delivering hurricane-strength winds, drenching rains, and severe coastal flooding throughout the populous mid-Atlantic and northeast corridor.

Some people will, of course, try to link Sandy with climate change. A similar rush to judgment occurred in the wake of massive tornado outbreaks in the US in recent years, even though the scientific literature does not offer strong support for such a connection. So, from the perspective of climate change, it is best to take a measured view of Sandy, lest hasty reaction harm scientific credibility.

But that is little cause for comfort. According to the giant insurance company Munich Re, weather and climate disasters contributed to more than one-third of a trillion dollars in damage worldwide in 2011, and this year’s total may rival that amount. There is growing evidence of links between climate change and sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts, and rainfall intensity, and, although scientific research on hurricanes and tornadoes is not as conclusive, that may be changing.

Indeed, recent reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific literature suggest that the intensity of tropical cyclones (that is, hurricanes) will increase as a result of warmer waters. And our atmosphere and oceans are, indeed, warming, with substantial residual heat stored in the ocean, to be released at some future time. A few studies have even suggested that tropical cyclones may be “wetter.” It is quite certain that sea levels have risen over the last century, and continue to rise, in response to changing climate. And storm surges now ride on these elevated sea levels, amplifying flooding losses where they strike.

Sea surface temperatures along the US northeast coast are about five degrees Fahrenheit above average, which helped to intensify Sandy just prior to landfall. At this point, it is premature to link the storm’s severity to warmer sea-surface temperatures, because regional variability is known to occur. But the link certainly is plausible.

Moreover, sea levels along the US northeast coast are rising up to four times faster than the global average, making the region more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding. And here the bottom line is that any coastal storm system will produce more flooding because of sea level rise.

It should also be noted that an atmospheric weather pattern known as a “block,” a persistent area of high pressure that may have led to record melting in Greenland, was most likely the reason that Sandy moved inland rather than out to sea. It is too early to tell whether this blocking pattern is a manifestation of weather variability, a short-term climate variation, or the result of climate change.

Advances in numerical weather forecasting during the past several decades have extended our ability to “see” into the future. In September 1938, before all of these advances, a hurricane devastated much of New England. No warnings were issued prior to its arrival. Today, thanks to satellites, weather balloons, supercomputers, and skilled forecasters, we can anticipate hazardous weather up to a week in advance. Similar advances in climate modeling are occurring, thanks to methodological improvements and better data.

At a minimum, we must ensure that world-class weather and climate-modeling centers have the necessary funding and manpower to implement the most advanced forecasting techniques. Numerical weather forecasting was invented in the US, but today other countries have developed extremely high modeling capacity. For example, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, in Great Britain, was targeting an East Coast landfall for Sandy days ahead of the best American model.

The world will need more cooperation in the coming years, as climate change begins to interact with and exacerbate extreme weather events, in order to gain the lead-time needed to prepare for disasters. We will also need the collaboration among governments, the private sector, and academia that often leads to improvements in forecasting.

Scientific meetings are key forums for sharing research, vetting new methodologies, and forging new partnerships. Many occur on an international basis, and we need to encourage such discourse, even in tough times for government budgets. It is reasonable to ask how well we would be able to predict or assess a storm like Sandy without the knowledge and capacity gained through such international collaboration.

We do not know whether superstorms like Sandy are harbingers of a “new normal” in the uneasy and unpredictable relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. That does not mean that there is not or cannot be such a connection, but rather that the scientific research needed to prove (or disprove) it must still be conducted. That is how good science works. Sandy has provided a powerful demonstration of the need to support it.

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  1. CommentedFrancisco Alves

    There is no "new normal". "Normal" can only exist when it is not influenced by external factors. Let's just stop looking at the tree. When we look around again the forest will be gone and that tree with it.

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    The problem is when ever we enter these debates, personal or group interest immediately trigger reflex responses to sweep the data and facts under the carpet.
    The greatest effort is put into denying the human contribution to these changes, to lessen any responsibilities from our part.
    And it is not just from strong interest groups, or corporations, but from everybody, none of us would like to accept that we have a negative effect on the world around us.
    But we cannot deny what is happening, it is not only the tropical storms, but the geothermal activity all around the globe with rising number, and intensity of volcano activity and earthquakes are also on our account,and despite people calling the extreme summer temperatures all over Europe for example "heat-waves", I do not think we can use such expressions when those temperature are the up 5 years in a row, and steadily rising.
    And in terms of human involvement we really only scratching the surface.
    If we try to look at it from the dynamic point of view of ecosystems then we see a much starker picture.
    There is no denying that the whole Earth, and possibly the Universe is a single, living ecosystem, with a very intricate interconnections, combination of forces, and laws primarily aimed at one thing: maintaining an overall balance and homeostasis in order to maintain structure, and in the case of living organism, growth, life.
    If we look at the inanimate, vegetative and animal levels of nature, each and every part, species, organism is automatically, instinctively in balance with this ecosystem, absorbing, emitting the necessary amount for survival, and reproduction, but never beyond.
    If for some reason any species could not maintain this equilibrium, they did not survive evolution.
    There is also no denial that the human species is way beyond its necessities, absorbing and emitting from and into the natural system materials that are multiple times over the natural necessities for survival and reproduction, and this imbalance, and opposition to the natural system has reached its maximum recently in the form of the excessive, overproduction, over consumption constant quantitative growth model, reaching and leaving peak points in exhausting human and natural resources.
    At the same time, again opposed to any other living species, humans live based on opposing and exploiting each other to the point of eradicating nations, cultures.
    The "human cancer" reached end stage.
    Most people would look at nature as "mindless" or random, but it is not the case, the forces and laws of balance and homeostasis, self-adjustment are working tirelessly, otherwise the system could not exist. And there is no appeal process here, the laws of nature are absolute.
    In conclusion we could say that at the moment the vast natural system around humanity, which system is infinitely larger and stronger than human beings, started fighting back, and is prepared to reject this harmful species as a foreign body. The imminent collapse of the unnatural, unsustainable financial, economical system is just another sign how nature self-corrects, removing unnatural, harmful processes, regardless of what tricks, "solutions" we think we have up in our sleeves.
    The blows that are likely to quicken and intensify are not comparable to even the harshest nuclear wars humans can come up with, we are facing forces we cannot even comprehend or predict.
    The system is not going to change, it has to maintain, preserve its integrity, only humans can learn, understand and adjust, this capability elevates us above other lifeforms, and give as the capability to become the benevolent "rulers" of this system, being partners with it.
    The question is whether this adaptation is coming in the form of wise understanding and conscious, pro-active manner, or as a result of the blows, falling on our knees.

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