Climate Change and Superstorm Sandy—What’s the Consensus?

By Beth Newhall

More than one hundred deaths, tens of billions of dollars in damage and losses, and parts of New Jersey and New York City underwater —Superstorm Sandy rolled into the Northeast Coast, bringing remarkable destruction, and suddenly talk of climate change filled the news. But discerning reliable facts and consensus from the noise can be difficult, and one question predominates: Can we definitively link Superstorm Sandy to global warming?

The scientific community agrees that it’s impossible to draw a direct correlation between any one storm—even a storm as severe as Sandy—and climate change. But Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, offered Paul Barrett of Bloomberg Businessweek an effective analogy in the form of a sports metaphor: “We can’t say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther. Now we have weather on steroids.”

The “steroids” pumping up the weather consist mainly of warmer oceans and rising sea levels. Following a general pattern of ocean warming, the Atlantic Ocean is currently warmer than usual. Before the storm hit, climate scientist Kerry Emanuel of MIT told Lisa Palmer of Slate that warmer oceans mean “more water vapor in the atmosphere. Sandy will certainly produce more rain than if we didn’t have these warm waters near the shore.”

In addition to warmer oceans, sea levels are rising as a result of melting of polar ice and the expansion that occurs when ocean temperatures are warmer. Higher sea levels contributed to the scale of Sandy’s storm surge and subsequent flooding.

In another key anomaly, Sandy hooked westward, unlike most tropical storms, which follow a path northward up the coast and then eastward out to sea. Sandy was pulled into the East Coast by a combination of unusual air currents that formed what is known as a blocking pattern. Although the development of blocking patterns is an area of continued research, there is speculation that these patterns are due at least in part to the warming atmosphere over the Arctic.

This all leads to perhaps the most critical question about Sandy: Can we expect another storm like Sandy in our lifetimes? According to the American Meteorological Society (AMS), the answer is a likely yes. Per the AMS 2012 information statement published in August, “Model simulations project an increased proportion of global hurricanes that are in the strongest categories, namely 4 and 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, although the total counts of hurricanes may not change or may even decrease.” In other words, we might not see more hurricanes, but those we do see could be much more intense.

In the weeks leading up to the election, climate activists across the country, including members of 350MA such as myself, agitated for a national conversation about climate change. No one wanted or expected a catastrophic storm like Sandy to underscore the urgency of our cause. Now that such a storm has, we have a responsibility to keep the conversation going so that this devastating warning will not be in vain.

Boston residents can influence how our city leaders prepare for climate change by participating in the process to update our Hazard Mitigation Plan. This is in some ways a blueprint for our climate adaptation efforts. You can read the existing plan at the City’s website and find out when the new draft plan is available for public review by calling BostonCAN at 857-544-6846.

You can also join BostonCAN as we begin forming affinity groups for the purpose of sustaining climate action in 2013. On January 19, BostonCAN affinity groups will travel together to a demonstration in Portland, Maine, focused on blocking a proposed Tar Sands pipeline through New England. Call BostonCAN or email BostonClimateActiongmailcom to be informed about upcoming planning meetings for the January 19th action.

Further Reading:

“Boston Could Be Vulnerable to More Severe Storms” by Beth Daley and Eric Moskowitz, Boston Globe (Nov. 2, 2012): http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2012/11/01/boston-could-vulnerable-more-severe-storms-city-urged-prepare-for-severe-storms-floods/AZHfnGCByUCW2RLFkTMz5I/story.html?camp=newsletter.
Daley and Moskowitz explore Boston’s preparedness for storms like Sandy, paying particular attention to the city’s subway system and hospitals.

“Hybrid Hell: Entry 1: Hurricane Sandy is a kind of storm scientists don’t understand well” by Lisa Palmer, Slate (Oct. 29, 2012): http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/features/2012/hurricane_sandy_and_climate_change/hurricane_sandy_hybrid_storm_kerry_emanuel_on_climate_change_and_storms.html.
“Hybrid Hell: Entry 2: A few inches of sea level rise make Hurricane Sandy even more catastrophic” by Lisa Palmer, Slate (Oct. 29, 2012): http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/features/2012/hurricane_sandy_and_climate_change/hurricane_sandy_and_climate_change_trenberth_of_ncar_on_dangers_to_coast.html.
In this pair of articles, Palmer interviews two climate scientists to find out the specific ways in which climate change may influence Hurricane Sandy or future storms. The scientists conclude that warming oceans and rising sea levels will lead to storms of greater intensity that produce much more rain.

“The Longform Guide to Climate Change” by Max Linsky, Slate (Nov. 3, 2012): http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/longform/2012/11/longform_s_guide_to_climate_change_a_terrifying_collection_of_stories_about.html.
Slate teams up with Longform to share an annotated list of longer articles about climate change. Articles address a range of topics, including one of the earliest evaluations of the greenhouse effect and the economics of emissions taxes.

“Weather on Steroids Is Global Warming, Stupid: Paul Barrett” by Paul Barrett, Bloomberg Businessweek (Nov. 1, 2012): http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-11-01/weather-on-steroids-is-global-warming-stupid-paul-barrett.
Barrett draws on varied sources from climate scientists to a German insurance company to make the argument that global warming is real and that there are economic imperatives to addressing it through national policy and global action.

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