Trenberth: Hurricane Sandy Mixes Super-Storm Conditions With Climate Change

by Kevin Trenberth

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy remains a very large, powerful hurricane. On Sunday afternoon (local time), Sandy brought winds gusting to 103km/h to coastal North Carolina. Heavy rains are already occurring from North Carolina to New Jersey with amounts recorded of 4cm so far.

But Sandy is predicted to turn left and move ashore on the Atlantic coast somewhat south of New York and north of Washington DC in a day or so. Rainfalls exceeding 15cm are likely in some areas, but a major risk is from the coastal storm surge on top of very high sea levels made higher by climate change.

A large easterly wind fetch has already piled waters up along the coast, and with high tide and the storm surge, and storm force winds extending a huge 800km plus from the center, the potential for the ocean surges to be over 3m is very real in the New York City area.

The sea surface temperatures along the Atlantic coast have been running at over 3C above normal for a region extending 800km off shore all the way from Florida to Canada. Global warming contributes 0.6C to this. With every degree C, the water holding of the atmosphere goes up 7%, and the moisture provides fuel for the tropical storm, increases its intensity, and magnifies the rainfall by double that amount compared with normal conditions.

Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and ocean temperatures, and a warmer and moister atmosphere, and its effects are in the range of 5 to 10%. Natural variability and weather has provided the perhaps optimal conditions of a hurricane running into extra-tropical conditions to make for a huge intense storm, enhanced by global warming influences.

My daughter lives in a ground level apartment in Hoboken New Jersey, a few hundred meters from the Hudson River, near Manhattan, New York City, in a region where the largest storm surge is predicted. My wife happens to be visiting with her and her family at the moment and as I write this, they are evacuating. They have taken many precautions including especially removing leaves (since it is autumn) from drains and sandbagging certain areas, but risk of flooding and backed up sewage and drains is high. Better safe than sorry.

Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth is a Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. This piece was originally published at The Conversation and was reprinted with permission from the author.

14 Responses to Trenberth: Hurricane Sandy Mixes Super-Storm Conditions With Climate Change

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    Frankenstorm is a perfectly nice name, as humans built it up.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    New York City should start thinking about the idea of a direct hit some year in the future. What would it do to the city electrical system if salt water rose high enough, found one hole into the subway network and corroded all of the city’s wires? The city would no longer work and maybe the best thing to do would be to evacuate it permanently. It’s possible that such an event will happen this week on a far, far smaller scale. We’ll see.

  3. Zimzone says:

    I hope your family stays safe, Dr. Trenberth.

    I can’t imagine what it’s like trying to evacuate from such a large metro area at the onset of such a huge storm. Stay safe, stay smart and best to you all.

  4. Jim Baird says:

    For the life of me I can’t understand how we can be so blind to the Natural analogy the Northeast is being hammered with.

    Hurricane are Nature’s response to an overheating ocean.

    Bill Gates has it half right calling for the dumping of surface heat to the depths to siphon off the power behind such storms.

    A heat pipe is the fastest and most effective way to do this and by sticking a turbine in the centre of the vapour channel you create a heat engine.

    For anyone interested in how this might be accomplished a video is posted at

  5. Steve says:

    Michael Bloomberg — a no-nonsense centrist willing to tell people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not — needs to use this occasion, on national television, to connect the big dot in the windy sky:

    1) Climate change IS causing ESCALATING extreme weather events with each successive year;

    2) That each and every one of us is either a part of the problem or a part of the solution (this requires more than just going on a blame Big Oil campaign and being done with your responsibilities — Big Oil and Big Coal are symptoms of our collective lifestyles and consumption patterns);

    3) And, your Washington politicians are too captive to campaign dollars and their false promises — to you — of endless prosperity and American dreams for all to do anything meaningful quickly enough to make a difference.

    We’ll see….

  6. Michael says:

    Can’t wait to see what contrarian Roger Pielke Jr. will respond with. Oh well, here’s what Stephen Schneider thought of him.

  7. SecularAnimist says:

    If the New York City sewer system is flooded then the city becomes uninhabitable. You can’t have a city of eight million people with no functioning toilets.

  8. While waiting for the United States to come to his assistance in WWII, Churchill said that the Americans always do the right thing in the end, after they have exhausted all other possibilities.

    In the case of climate change, there is no longer any scope to believe that Churchill’s aphorism will apply. This country will not take the necessary action; it is already too late for that. And it will not apologize to the rest of humanity, never mind Mother Nature, for its sins.

    The wake-up call could not be much louder or more timely. Yet the American people will ignore the few candidates on the ballot – particularly Jill Stein and Rocky Anderson – who could prove Churchill right. Whichever corporate stooge prevails on 11/6, his victory will be Pyrrhic indeed.

  9. Robert says:

    Fortunately for North Carolina, the North Carolina General Assembly just this year legislated that high water is not a concern. If only Virginia and New York had been on the ball, none of this would be a problem…

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The real, terrible, truth is that New York, London, Shanghai, Venice, Florida, Holland, Bangladesh et al, are all doomed. Climate destabilisation is running far faster than predicted, and, inexorably, sea levels will rise, barring Divine Intervention. The only question is ‘How soon?’.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I am certainly not in favour of the means by which Bloomberg made the billions with which he bought the New York Mayorship, but he seems the most sane and rational political leader in sight in much of the USA. Perhaps because he doesn’t have to grovel to money power for contributions explains his commonsense.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The US lead in climate destabilisation denial, and its actions to prevent global action, are central, in my opinion, to the rapid crumbling of US prestige and influence. The Chinese, if they seek to rapidly surpass the USA in influence, need only work with the rest of humanity (bar the Western powers in the NATO ‘Atlanticist’ cabal which won’t welcome non-Western global leadership any time soon) to resolve the climate problem. They seem, so far, to be acting with some hesitancy, but I hope they will soon see the need to lead. It might kick the US elite out of their phantasy world, too.

  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thanks for the tip and the link. Fascinating and helpful.

  14. Utter and complete nonsense.

    Sandy is a minor storm, not even a hurricane any longer, merely a “post-tropical cyclone.

    Politics and journalistic excess have created this “monster.”