Has climate change created a monster?


To adapt a famous quote on another subject:  you may not be interested in climate change, but climate change is interested in you.  While both presidential candidates and moderators of the debates have taken criticism for avoiding the subject of climate change, it may not be that easy for residents on the U.S. East Coast to avoid the effects of the “Frankenstorm” — Hurricane Sandy.

Hurricane Sandy forecast track, October 26, 2012 (Source: NOAA National Hurricane Center)

Hurricane Sandy 5-day rainfall forecast October 26, 2012 (Source: NOAA National Weather Service)

I can see it now, a few decades in the future.  It’s Halloween 2075 and a little girl walks up to a home in a Philadelphia suburb overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  She rings the doorbell, the door opens and the homeowner asks, “and what are you tonight little girl?”  She shyly replies, “I’m a Frankenstorm.”  Well that might be a little radical, but it’s not too far from the current path we’re on.

Hurricane Sandy is expected to merge with a strong cold front to the west creating what NOAA scientists are calling a “Frankenstorm,” a highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, union of forces that may create a monster of a storm.  As the presidential campaigns are coming to a close, Hurricane Sandy rushes up the Atlantic Coast, along with its death toll.  While both presidential candidates and moderators of the debates have taken criticism for avoiding the subject of climate change, I’m not sure it will be that easy for the residents on the coast to avoid the effects of this hurricane.

Indeed climate change does not wait for any mortal — or election cycle for that matter.  But you have to see the irony in this unfortunate series of events.  As media and well-known activists call out the candidates for ducking climate change, it seems Mother Nature is sending us a message.  It’s almost as if Mother Nature trying to tell us something, “you can ignore climate change all you want, but its not going away.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I am sure these climatic events would have occurred whether or not the current administration was talking about climate change, but it does seem odd.  The trend of climate silence has coincided with unprecedented extreme weather in the United States during the last few years.  As politicians and environmental groups strayed away from even speaking the words climate change, it has only gotten worse.  Just two months after the Republican National Convention was postponed due to extreme weather, while they laughed at the thought of climate change, Sandy is set to make another splash.

I pray that this hurricane misses the United States and my home in Washington, DC, by a wide margin, saving billions of dollars in clean-up costs and sparing lives of innocent people caught in the storm’s path.  But on the other side of that coin, some good might come out of such a disaster.

If Sandy makes landfall in some of the most densely populated areas in the United States, will the impending natural disaster spark talks about climate change?  I often ask myself,  “How bad does it have to get for people to start taking climate change seriously?”  As Andrew Restuccia of Politico put it, “Is hurricane Sandy the next climate wake-up call?”  If the drought, wildfires, heat, and Arctic ice melt of 2012 were not a sufficient wake-up call, then what will be?  Maybe a massive hurricane would do the trick?

I know what you’re thinking:  who says that Hurricane Sandy has anything to do with climate change?  Before recently there wasn’t enough strong scientific evidence that global warming might increase the destructive power of hurricanes.  It wasn’t until the 1970s that satellites were able to monitor tropical storms and hurricanes.  Before the 70s many tropical storms and hurricanes were poorly recorded, monitored only by unlucky planes or ships crossing the storm’s path.  The period of time from the late 1970s to the present simply didn’t provide enough data to form accurate trends based on global warming.  That is now changing.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Aslak Grinsted of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues devised a way around this time-lapse problem.  Using data from storm surges, the “abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above predicted astronomical tides,” Grinsted now had data from as far back as the 1920s.  What did they find?  “Using surges as an indicator we see an increase in all magnitudes of storms when ocean temperatures are warmer,” according to Michael D. Lemonick of Climate Central.  But make no mistake, the storm surge data is not a perfect measurement because not all tropical storms and hurricanes make landfall.

The hurricane’s path is eerily similar to that of category 1 Hurricane Irene that drenched the majority of the U.S. eastern seaboard in August 2011 and left behind a trail of damage.  Irene had a profound impact on the East Coast, killing 56 people in 10 states and costing roughly 7 billion dollars in cleanup costs.

Irene hits New York City, August 2011 (Source: NOAA)

What’s so unusual about Sandy and the timing of this hurricane?  This late in the Hurricane season, by late October, the storm systems that materialize around the Caribbean usually move eastward away from the United States.  Since Wednesday October 24, weather models have attempted to make sense of the predicted track of Sandy, but struggle because very little precedent exists in modern observations to drawn upon.

Andrew Freedman at Climate Central had this to say about Sandy:  “Normally, hurricanes that form in Sandy’s location do head seaward, particularly in October, when strong cold fronts moving off the East Coast tend to sweep tropical weather systems away from the mainland. In fact, there may only have been a couple of cases in the historical record dating back to the 19th century when a hurricane took a track in October similar to the one Sandy may ultimately follow.”

So what has experts sounding the alarm on Hurricane Sandy, saying likely to be worse than 1991 “perfect storm?”  An intense high-pressure system, unusual for this time of year, has formed over Greenland and much of Canada that will act as a “blocking high”, preventing the hurricane from moving in a typical trajectory away from the United States.  Instead, this pressure disparity will most likely pull the storm system back toward New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and as far into the mainland as Ohio.

Is this high pressure related to the unprecedented Arctic ice melting experienced this summer?  Many scientists agree that increased melting of Arctic sea ice has allowed the sun’s energy to warm the oceans in the north a great deal.  Others speculate the warming seas have altered the delicate balance of energy in the north, shifting weather patterns around the world.  This exact complex relationship is still under scrutiny by scientists around the world.

If this supercharged “Frankenstorm” were to continue on its likely trajectory, the latest sets of computer models expect severe impacts.  Sandy, likely to be a “billion dollar disaster…will bring sustained winds of 50 – 60 mph with gusts over hurricane force to a large section of coast,” according to Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground.  He also added that, “If Sandy hits Long Island, as the GFS model predicts, the storm surge will be capable of over-topping the flood walls in Manhattan and flooding portions of the New York City subway system.”

It’s hard to believe what has gotten lost in all this extreme weather talk: the crucial need for climate preparedness.  Our climate is changing; this is now more painfully obvious than ever.  Recent studies suggest that the majority of the coasts in the United States are vulnerable to rising seas due to climate change.  The signs and warnings are very clear, but there is no sense of urgency to prepare for our impending climate 50 years from now.  The United States has fallen behind on this front, while other countries are planning for the future.

Building cities to standards that will be obsolete in the next few decades is a gross waste of resources.  Coastal areas where homes and office buildings reside could be washed away, yet little is being done to plan ahead.   Projected sea level rise in the next century will ultimately lay waste to entire urban areas in coastal regions.  Preventive action, based on sound scientific data, must be championed soon to save our coastal communities.   The seas will rise, whether we believe in climate change or not, so we must adapt and prepare.  What we need is political leadership to start talking about climate change again, no matter whether it’s an election year or not.  Time is running out on preventive action, while the “Frankenstorm” draws nearer.



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7 Responses to Has climate change created a monster?

  1. pinroot says:

    Prediction: This storm will fail to live up to the hype (and hope from the doom and gloomers) surrounding it. At this time (12:31 AM Saturday) the WeatherChannel calls for it to be barely above hurricane strength (winds at 80mph is the forecast; 75mph is Category 1 hurricane strength) when it makes landfall Monday. That won’t stop the doom and gloom crowd from milking it for everything they can get out of it.

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  3. Im so glad you posted this, because I find it so horrifyingly foolish to hear mostly the right wing of our party try to ridicule the ‘global warming ‘ reality, when its right there under our noses. It’s a very very sad commentary on humanity, that it’s likely going to take thousands/millions either dying or in severe jeopardly, to get people to stop being political about this and do something.

    Thanks for writing this article and addressing the obvious, that so many ill informed out outright ‘deniers’ ignore, yet is so important to protect lives and prepare for our futures.

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  5. SukieTawdry says:

    “…unprecedented extreme weather in the United States during the last few years.”

    “Extreme weather” in the US is hardly unprecedented. “Extreme weather” is the planetary norm. People don’t “laugh” at “climate change,” you know. People laugh at the idea that a changing climate is “unprecedented,” a new phenomenon, a man made by-product of the industrial age.

    Preparation for and mitigation of the damage nature can inflict is always wise policy. The idea that “climate change” can be stopped, or reversed, if only we would cover the landscape with windmills and institute policies like cap and trade is what’s laughable. Mayor Bloomberg, who is mewling about climate change in the wake of Sandy, has had nearly three terms to better prepare New York for the ravages of extreme weather. He instead focused on soda, trans fats and cigarette smoke.

    I hope you understand that your war on so-called fossil fuels is a loser, I don’t care who’s in the White House or which party controls Congress. A clean environment and conservation of land, water and natural resources always have been and always will be goals worthy of attaining. But until the next big breakthrough in energy production and storage occurs, oil, gas and coal will continue to be the commodities that fuel the planet’s economic engine. Those of you who think you can have it otherwise are the real deniers.

    Oh, and by the way, oil is a natural resource, you know. In fact, it’s a goddamn miracle of nature. Like aspirin. Or penicillin. Or salt.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Great name, Sukie, speaking as a long-time fan of Threepenny Opera.

      Of course we aren’t saying that extreme weather is unprecedented. Our language was probably a too-imprecise way of suggesting that, in recent years, the U.S. has seen a combination of heat, drought, wildfires, and now storm surge that has little precedent during the time that good records have been kept. And we have posted multiple times on the scientific viewpoint that the correct way to characterize the current situation requires understanding that anthropogenic climate change is now a component of the weather patterns, in particular loading the dice toward greater extremes.

      New York City has actually initiated some of the most proactive adaptive preparedness planning for climate change among U.S. cities, in which scientific expertise has been brought together with agencies with infrastructure and resource management responsibilities to assess risks and vulnerability. But this is all a rather recent development, adaptive preparedness presents a highly complex set of issues, and we will be seeing the limits of what can be done. Credit to Mayor Bloomberg for that. See: http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2012/09/11/new-york-city-struggles-with-climate-impacts-preparedness/

      I disagree that it is wise to wait for some fundamental technological breakthrough before we move down the path toward decarbonizing the energy system through efficiency gains and renewable energy. First, doing so would delay for probably decades getting needed changes in place. Second, I expect the most important innovations and ‘breakthroughs’ will be achieved in the process of deploying existing technologies and then improving incrementally on them, e.g., by improving the interface with end-users and marketing continually better products, as we have seen with information and communication technologies that rapidly evolve as they are deployed, through technological and entrepreneurial innovation. See: http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2012/05/21/cold-cash-cool-climate/

      As for oil, certainly it’s a natural resource and a ‘goddamn miracle of nature’. No wonder we have gotten so hooked on it. It’s fantastic stuff, the amount of energy packed into a gallon of it is extraordinary. Renewable energy is more diffuse and will call on the system to become more elegant and much more efficient in how it uses energy. The prospect of very bad global climatic disruption from burning fossil fuels necessitates an expedited transition to alternatives, unfortunately. Hopefully the developing countries will find a way to move directly to decentralized renewables (and cell phones and laptops), leapfrogging over the industrialized West’s history of resource-crunching and environmentally unsustainable development. And hopefully the U.S. will take a leading role in developing the new energy economy, and not stay so hung up in our own political dysfunction and right-wing obstructionism that other countries take the lead for us.

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