Energy & Environment

Is Hurricane Sandy the face of climate change?

Jayni Foley Hein

It’s a question at the forefront of many of our minds, as we witness the aftermath of Sandy’s fierce destruction.  In the days following the superstorm, we’ve seen surreal images — an illuminated carousel appearing to float in high water, drowning taxi cabs in perfect rows — things we believed would not happen for decades, as climate change inched up on us slowly and steadily.  But climate change does not carry a yardstick; it does not operate in measured units of time and space.  It is unpredictable and cumulatively impacted by human activities; a volatile mistress affected by our stubbornness and neglect.

And so the question remains, is Sandy the face of climate change?  If so, this should serve as a strong signal that without prompt and effective policy measures to address global warming, we are precipitating our own tumultuous future.  And perhaps a better question is, shouldn’t we be taking urgent action on climate change regardless of the specific cause of one superstorm?

Temperatures are rising; Extreme weather is becoming more extreme 

As a non-scientist, I must leave the technical discussion of Sandy’s cause to scientists.  However, I will summarize what we know.  Extreme events are relatively rare, which means there is little data available to make assessments regarding changes in their frequency or intensity.  By contrast, it is easier to chart patterns of global temperature (it is rising), sea level (also rising) and drought (becoming more frequent and severe).

Sandy arrived during one of the warmest years in history in the United States.  Sea surface temperatures along the hurricane’s path were about 5°F above historical average temperatures.  Hurricanes need warm water to form and sustain their power.  In addition to a strong pattern of rising temperatures on land and in the ocean, sea levels have risen. Water levels around New York are a nearly a foot higher than they were 100 years ago.  All of this contributes to a nice environment for powerful storms to develop and wreak havoc on our coastal cities and populations.

Extreme weather events are becoming more intense in some regions due to global warming, and will likely continue to be more intense.  This is set out in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as well as in the special report by IPCC Working Groups I and II on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX).  While the IPCC predicts no increase in the number of cyclone events, it does predict an increase in their severity and intensity – as we saw firsthand with Sandy.

A risky wager

If nothing else, we should pay attention to the massive cost (in dollars and lives) that more powerful storms and hurricanes will have on our population if global temperatures continue to rise.  Dozens of U.S. citizens lost their lives due to Sandy, and more than 8 million U.S. homes and businesses lost power, according to the Energy Department estimates.  The storm is expected to cause about $20 billion worth of property damage, in addition to $10 billion to $30 billion in lost business.  In 2005, Hurricane Katrina cost the Gulf Coast more than $100 billion.  It’s hard to ignore the massive financial cost of increasingly lethal storms colliding with development in floodplains and coastal zones.

In fact, some insurance companies are starting to account for predicted climate impacts such as wildfires, flood risk, and hurricane impacts in their insurance premiums, or are denying coverage altogether for particularly risky areas and activities.  Reinsurance companies like Swiss Re and Munich Re have redesigned contracts and are pushing insurers and policymakers to address climate change, as changing weather patterns alter familiar risk and cost structures.  (Mills 2007).  Earlier this month, Munich Re issued a study entitled “Severe Weather in North America.”  It found that the number of “weather-related loss events” has quintupled over the last three decades in North America.  While a number of factors contributed to this trend, the report identified global warming as one of the main drivers: “Climate change particularly affects formation of heat-waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.”

Perhaps the corporate climate deniers among us should put their money where their mouth is and insure high climate risk areas for lower cost.  If they truly believe climate change is a hoax, they should be happy to do so.

Learning from the disaster

The hope is that Sandy will serve as a wake-up call to mainstream America and mainstream media that global warming is an urgent problem to which we do not currently have solution.  Our buildings, roads, levees and people are not indestructible and will be increasingly tested.  Unfortunately, we are not winning this battle.  And unfortunately, this is not a battle fought only by “all you climate change people,” as CNN moderator Candy Crowley would have you believe – it impacts everyone.

Cross-posted on Legal Planet on 10/31/12.

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Comments to "Is Hurricane Sandy the face of climate change?":
    • mememine69

      Climate change science was a war crime!
      Science only says it “could” happen, never have they said it “WILL” happen. READ their reports! So how can they claim we “could” be at the brink of no return and at the same time claim it “could” happen? NEVER have they said it “will” happen. Help my house could be on fire maybe?
      All evidence points to exaggeration and real planet lovers are happy a crisis wasn’t real after all so get ahead of the curve:
      *In all of the debates Obama hadn’t planned to mention climate change once.
      *Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two State of the Unions addresses.
      *Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock markets run by corporations.
      *Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.
      *Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).
      President RomneyCON will thank us all for fear mongering our own voting base his way. Nice job girls. So is our exaggeration “crisis” for political gain really worth it all still? The only way out is to blame the world of science that also gave us the pesticides that made stewardship necessary in the first place. Scientists are lab coat consultants, not Gods.

      [Report abuse]

    • an anonymous scientist from a major research university

      you fail to understand what science can tell us, and how scientific research operates.

      logical tools that can reveal an absolute truth do not exist because the amount of time that we can test or observe things is finite. the only sort of information we can ever discover is what is LIKELY going to happen, given the facts that we have deduced or inferred. the rest is up to our interpretation. scientists can generally interpret such results more accurately than those who are untrained in scientific analysis, simply because we spend entire careers doing just that. the only thing our reports can ever claim is correlation, and some subjective likelihood, given all the other reports before it, that it is or is not a good picture of what to expect if we were to do such a study again.

      the law of gravitation, the laws of physics that govern how every electronic or mechanical device that you have ever seen, operated, or benefited from (including computers, phones, refrigerators, heating systems, air conditioning systems, cars, planes, ad nauseum) have all been based on technologies developed from years or generations of reports of how things are LIKELY to happen. this is how science has always operated, because it’s the only way it is able to operate.

      therefore your argument is completely invalid and fly in the face of the basic tenets of science. only recently has the levels of education and self-confidence been high enough in the general public for people to have had just enough exposure to science to think that they have sufficient faculty to judge for themselves what is science and what is not. and this is precisely why we are having this debate. imagine if such fools were so empowered hundreds of years ago when witchcraft and science were indistinguishable to the uneducated mind. we never would have made it out of the dark ages. and now, in all our brazen foolishness, we may not be making it out of the age that is to come.

      [Report abuse]

    • kinsa ka

      The argument that the water level around New York is about a foot higher than 100 years ago has never been established as result of climate change. Besides, New York had never been devastated repeatedly by so called super storms granted that its water level is a foot higher.

      So much about linking to imaginary climate change.

      [Report abuse]

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