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How Does Climate Change Make Superstorms Like Sandy More Destructive?

By Joe Romm on October 31, 2012 at 5:03 pm

"How Does Climate Change Make Superstorms Like Sandy More Destructive?"

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I am scheduled to be on the PBS Newshour tonight on Sandy.

Satellite image of Superstorm Sandy taken at 10 am EDT Tuesday. Image NASA GSFC via Masters.

Climate science explains how global warming can make a superstorms like Sandy more destructive in several ways:

  1. Warming-driven sea level rise makes storm surges more destructive. In fact, a recent study found “The sea level on a stretch of the US Atlantic coast that features the cities of New York, Norfolk and Boston is rising up to four times faster than the global average.”
  2. “Owing to higher SSTs [sea surface temperatures] from human activities, the increased water vapor in the atmosphere leads to 5 to 10% more rainfall and increases the risk of flooding,” as Kevin Trenberth explained to me in a 2011 email about Hurricane Irene. He elaborates on that point for Sandy here and for all superstorms in this article.
  3. “However, because water vapor and higher ocean temperatures help fuel the storm, it is likely to be more intense and bigger as well,” Trenberth added (see another of his articles here). Relatedly, warming also extends the range of warm SSTs, which can help sustain the strength of a hurricane as it steers on a northerly track into cooler water (much as apparently happened for Irene). September had the second highest global ocean temperatures on record and the Eastern seaboard was 5°F warmer than average (with global warming  responsible for about 1°F of that).
  4. The unusual path of the storm — into the heavily populated east coast rather than out to see — was caused by a very strong blocking high pressure system that recent studies have linked to warming.  Meteorologist and former Hurricane Hunter Jeff Masters has an excellent analysis of this, “Why did Hurricane Sandy take such an unusual track into New Jersey?

I have put these in order from most scientific certainty to least. The first two — the impact of sea level rise and increased water vapor — are unequivocal. The third is extremely likely. The fourth is more speculative.

Remember, climate scientists and others have for quite some time been warning New York City that climate change was dramatically increasing the odds of a devastating storm surge — see Greg Laden’s post, “Peer Reviewed Research Predicted NYC Subway Flooding by #Sandy.” See also today’s NY Times story, “For Years, Warnings That It Could Happen Here.” Also a brand new study of storm surges since 1923 finds “that Katrina-magnitude events have been twice as frequent in warm years compared with cold years” — so more severe surges are on the way.

And that’s the other key reason we must make the connection to climate change: Scientists worst-case scenarios are already happening — so their latest findings deserve attention so that Sandy doesn’t become just another Cassandra whose warnings are ignored. Now climate scientists project that we risk up to 10 times as much warming this century as in the last 50 years — with many devastating consequences from dramatic sea level rise to Dust-Bowlification (see my review of more than 60 recent studies).

That means the 4 factors described above are going to have a greater and greater impact over time. That’s one of the many, many reasons we must act to reduce emissions ASAP, so we don’t keep getting “new normals” that ultimately make Sandy and Irene seem tame.

The media coverage of the link between Sandy and climate change started (too) slowly, as Climate Progress reported, but has vastly improved. NBC News in particular had a great story with Trenberth that touched on the points above.

Unfortunately, while more of the media are getting the story right, some are still not.

Some ask and answer the wrong question, as for instance, the Houston Chronicle story “Are hurricanes hitting New York in October a sure sign of global warming?” The loaded phrase here is “a sure sign of.” That story ends by dismissing the notion of “blaming Sandy on climate change” — another loaded phrase.

Climate Central gets the story right with its story, “HOW WARMING WORSENED SANDY’S IMPACTSGlobal warming made Hurricane Sandy more destructive than it otherwise would have been, through sea level rise, warmer ocean temperatures, and other influences.…”

I am generally a fan of linguist George Lakoff’s writing — and cite him at length in my latest book, Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Lady Gaga. But I think he gets it wrong with his piece, “Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy.” He asserts “Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS.” Well, yes, but you can’t get AIDS without HIV. You can get hurricanes without global warming. A highly disproportionate and statistically significant number of people who smoke get lung cancer. Again, that simply isn’t analogous to the connection between global warming and Hurricane Sandy.

I can’t repost enough times Trenberth’s statement from his must-read paper “How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change“:

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

And as Climate Progress reported last week, Munich Re, a top reinsurer, released a major new study that for the first time, links the rapid rise in North American extreme weather catastrophes to manmade climate change:

“Climate­-driven changes are already evident over the last few decades for severe thunderstorms, for heavy precipitation and flash flood­ing, for hurricane activity, and for heatwave, drought and wild­-fire dynamics in parts of North America.”

Surprisingly, one of the media outlets that got the story wrong was the “media watchdog,” Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), with its piece, “Sandy’s climate context: Why generalizing about extreme weather helps no one.” I’ll discuss the flaws in the CJR piece in a follow-up post.

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41 Responses to How Does Climate Change Make Superstorms Like Sandy More Destructive?

  1. Mark E says:

    I am scheduled to be on the PBS Newshour tonight on Sandy

    Go Joe!

  2. MarkfromLexington says:

    What time are you scheduled to be on News Hour?

  3. SecularAnimist says:

    Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy are not caused by climate change — they ARE climate change.

    Asking whether a hurricane is caused by climate change is like asking whether a minute is caused by an hour.

    “Weather” and “climate” refer to the same thing — atmospheric conditions and phenomena — just on different time scales. The behavior of one hurricane over a period of a week or two is weather; the behavior of hundreds of hurricanes over several decades is climate.

    Global warming affects atmospheric conditions and phenomena on both short-term and long-term time scales, and thus it is entirely correct to say that global warming is a contributing cause to both short-term extreme weather events and to long term changes in weather patterns, a.k.a. climate.

  4. fj says:

    The high frequency of extreme climate events demands that we face global warming head on to bring emissions to zero in five years and restore the environment to support life as we know it at wartime
    speed.

  5. Gail says:

    The size of the storm, the flooding, sea-level rise, are obvious signs of climate change. Let’s hope the people who suffered losses from those things start calling out the deniers that have prevented political action and cultural change that could have averted or at least postponed the tragedy that this storm has become for so many.

    On the other hand, one of the worst effects of Sandy – lost power – is mainly due to falling trees, as are most deaths. And that’s NOT from climate change.

    Very people even ask the question – why are so many trees of all species are falling onto power lines in the first place, at a frequency that isn’t explained by wind speed. The wind just wasn’t strong enough in either Irene or Sandy to explain so many falling trees and branches. Where was all the structural damage from wind (not flooding) – the torn roofs, overturned trailers, tossed outdoor furniture? I haven’t seen any, and yet, everywhere in New Jersey roads are blocked and lines are down from fallen trees.

    Very few people realize that trees are dying off at a rapidly accelerating rate from air pollution. Vegetation is even more sensitive to pollution than humans, particularly because it causes them to lose natural immunity to pests, disease, fungus and drought, which are then typically blamed for forest decline, bark beetles and wild fires.

    Although peak levels of air pollution have been reduced, especially for SO2, nitrogen oxides have continued to increase and consequently the constant background level of tropospheric ozone has been inexorably rising. It’s invisible, but it’s there just as are oxygen, nitrogen and CO2. Except it’s toxic.

    Over the past few years it has surpassed a threshold that is tolerable to plants. Annual agricultural yield and quality have declined, and longer-lived trees that absorb it season after season have passed a tipping point and are now dying in droves. The damage done to vegetation by ozone has been well understood for decades and demonstrated in countless field surveys and controlled fumigation experiments.

    Ozone is the real reason that so many trees and branches are falling, and why so many people (including me!) are without power. If you actually look at the fallen trees, almost all are rotten inside or have injured leaves or needles, which are visible symptoms of ozone exposure.

    This is an extremely unpopular idea, because it is very threatening to a life style dependent on burning fuel for energy. Nevertheless, it is critical for people to understand, since we are also dependent on trees for oxygen and as a CO2 sink, as well as various other products and services, like fruit, nuts and lumber.

    It seems people have short memories but the trees never used to come down in huge numbers – let alone fall on people, houses and cars with such regularity – which simply cannot be explained by an expanded population.

    I have been putting photos and links to research on a blog for several years now (http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/

    and wrote a book which can be downloaded for free linked at the top of the page. Other books have been written about this problem but they are generally ignored, one of the best is An Appalachian Tragedy. It’s a little out of date and focussed on forests from Georgia to Maine, and this is now a global issue, but it explains the phenomena very well.

    Climate change isn’t the reason that trees are dying (YET). But dying trees are going to massively accelerate climate change as they become CO2 emitters instead of absorbers, which has already started.

    • Paul Klinkman says:

      In other parts of the United States and elsewhere in the world, pristine low-ozone forests are filled with dead trees. Some of the causes in these other forests — an explosion of predatory bugs for which the long-lived trees are unprepared, terrible drought, too much rain, disruption of annual first frost and last frost cycles so that the trees releaf too early, get branches torn off by snow on the leaves or else the bugs are already out to feast on the too-late spring re-leafing period — are climate-related.

      You may be right about the effects of ozone damaging tree leaves. Your notable exclusion of other sources of current damage to trees, including climate change sources and acid rain, makes me wonder whether anyone else supports your exclusion.

      • There are no “pristine, low-ozone” forests in a world increasingly exposed to fossil-fuel combustion by-products.

        • Paul Klinkman says:

          Of course there are lower ozone forests. They can’t all be high ozone forests downwind from specific ozone pollution sources.

          • Now you have moved the goalposts to “lower ozone forests,” which still misses the key concept of chronic (and increasing) background levels of tropospheric ozone levels worldwide, levels not tied to specific point sources.

    • Joan Savage says:

      Several recent youtube videos of trees toppling were not in exceptionally windy conditions, but where trees with small root systems flipped out of soggy soil, like turning over a patch of wet carpeting.

      The trees involved didn’t have an obvious predisposing disease damage, just itty-bitty roots for the size of the topside of the tree.

      • Diversion of resources towards maintaining damaged foliage (and so away from roots) is a known vegetative response to ozone pollution.

        • Brandy says:

          I think it’s important for people to know that ozone pollution is killing the trees but not sure how it’s helping to view it as separate from climate change given how intertwined the problems are.

          To quote from Radio Echoshock’s introduction to the subject of dying forests:

          “It is happening around the world, in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and all down the West Coast of North America. Call it bugs, call it fungus, call it drought and record heat. Call it climate change and plain old pollution.”

          http://www.ecoshock.info/2012/05/why-are-forests-dying.html

  6. MarkfromLexington says:

    I just listened to an NPR interview (about 6:10 PM) with NOAA scientist Hurley. NPR plays Gov. Cuomo saying climate change is a reality – Then they ask Hurley “Was Sandy was caused by climate change?” Hurley – No.

    I’m not happy that Hurley doesn’t explain that this is the wrong question, but ok…

    Then NPR asks “Really? Hasn’t climate change changed the frequency or intensity of hurricanes?” Hurley answers – No.

    He then talks about some storm 150 years ago saying it was just as big.

    Who is Hurley and why is he taking the position that climate change isn’t affecting the intensity of hurricanes?

    • SecularAnimist says:

      Mark, one of NPR’s major corporate sponsors over the last year has been the American Petroleum Institute’s “Vote4Energy” pro-fossil fuel, anti-renewable energy, drill-baby-drill propaganda campaign aimed at electing more global warming deniers to Congress.

      Other corporate sponsors include Shell and ConocoPhillips.

      Why does NPR consistently ask the wrong questions — when they bother to mention global warming at all, which is rarely?

      It’s a mystery.

    • Dickensian American says:

      Mark,

      It was actually Dr. Martin Hoerling, from NOAA. Here is the transcript of that segment:

      http://www.npr.org/2012/10/31/164055672/is-climate-change-responsible-for-sandy?ft=1&f=2

      And a quick google reveals a Climate Progress article referring to him as a “contrarian” who asserted publicly that the 2012 Spring heatwave was a “darn good outcome” of climate change.

      http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/04/04/456927/contrarian-noaa-meteorologist-martin-hoerling-freak-heat-wave-a-darn-good-outcome/

      Sucks that NPR picks him, a d-bag contrarian, as the singular authority for their nationally syndicated show asking this most important question at a key juncture of national attention.

      • Dickensian American says:

        PS: He also tried to publicly shoot down Hansen’s “Game Over For the Climate” editorial that made it to the NYTimes.

        This earned Hoerling much praise and adulation at WUWT. I won’t link directly to those. Folks can google it if they need to read it directly. I’m through with the obstructionist pseudo-skeptics. Their greed and ideology driven antics are getting people killed at this point.

  7. Jim Baird says:

    Joe, hurricanes are Nature’s response to overheating oceans which have accumulated close to 95 percent of the heat attributable to climate change. They have now laid waste to both ends of the eastern seaboard of the United Sates and the heat is doing a similar number on phytoplankton that are the base of the ocean food chain as well as the lungs of the planet.

    Hurricanes are atmospheric heat pipe which transport massive amounts of heat rapidly with phase changes of a liquid. They are the blue print to the solution to the climate problem by converting this lethal heat to productive use.

    A video demonstrating this solution is available at http://www3.telus.net/gwmitigationmethod/You%20Tube.htm

  8. Steve says:

    Phrases such as “500-year” and “1000-year” events tie into notions of natural variability. But the extent of Arctic sea ice melt, permanent (and increasing) ocean surface water heating, permanent sea level rise, permanent (and increasing) average air temperature… these things are all new baseline constants.

    The real question after Irene and Sandy… what are the odds (50-50 or worse?) of exactly the same type of devastation coming back again next year in the same September – October time frame with no 5-10 year emotional, financial, and rebuilding breather in between????

    Time to think where you live and invest and insure your real property assets.

  9. catman306 says:

    How about, systemic causation is to normal cause and effect as climate is to weather? It’s just a question of scale.

  10. prokaryotes says:

    Trend and Variation is analog to Weather and Climate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeM11cSAtlc

  11. Paul Klinkman says:

    Hey, they (where “they” is Joe) actually talked about climate change on TV for once. All those millions that the Koch brothers used to threaten the media couldn’t stop that one little truth leak. Ok, it was a drop in the bucket.

    Some of us (where “us” has usually been me) who have been nudging in these replies about the danger of a hurricane hitting New York City and flooding the subways, have been unfortunately proved right.

    Is this a good time to also mention that Miami is at risk – it could be flooded halfway to the Everglades some day, and the Andrew-type 170 mph storms just explode against that particular coast. That Boston is surprisingly low-lying and storms sometimes move from east to west these days? That suburbs halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento have nothing but a little earthen dam between them and some walloping ocean storm driving water far inland?

    Nahh, it’ll never happen in a million years.

    • LOL Paul, but COL more accurate. So sad to see our vulnerable population centers getting whalloped. Dreading a future combo of big metro firestorms and floods.

  12. John McCormick says:

    Melting Arctic sea ice and open Arctic Ocean leading to higher temperatures in eastern Arctic, North Atlantic leading to high pressure systems and erratic jet stream dipping south then straight north.

    Typical tropical storms taking heat from the Gulf Stream and churning north along the East coast will possibly be caught in the complex North Atlantic pressure systems and be drawn inland. Just my thought.

    The recent past has given way to a warmer future. NYC cannot reconstruct its underground systems.

    No time. Not enough money or alternative real estate to reposition the lines, tracks, roads, parking garages, etc.

  13. Paul Klinkman says:

    At last the press got a straight answer out of someone, out of anyone!

    “Klaus Jacob, an environmental disaster expert at Columbia University who oversaw the portion of the report dealing with transit disruptions, told Caruso the study estimated that it would take four weeks to get the subway system back to 90 percent of normal capacity.”

  14. Paul Magnus says:

    This is how sea level rise invades… slowly but surely….

    Sandy Leaves Coast Vulnerable to Nor’easters
    http://www.accuweather.com
    Storm surge and waves from Sandy have damaged or destroyed protective dunes and sea walls along portions of the Atlantic Seaboard.

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Climate-Portals/139434822741700

  15. Paul Magnus says:

    could be wake up call….yes.

    Sandy puts climate change back on the US election agenda
    http://www.guardian.co.uk
    Bill Clinton and Al Gore among those calling for fresh focus on issue that neither candidate mentioned in televised debates

    “The terrifying truth is that America faces a future full of Frankenstorms,” said Shaye Wolf

    “Climate change raises sea levels and super-sizes storms. The threat of killer winds and crushing storm surges will grow by the year unless we get serious about tackling greenhouse gas pollution.”

    Climate Portals ps global civilization can not survive the current rate of return of destructive climate (We have another 1C+ in the GW pipeline. Tushay…) Throw in all the other stuff like OA, Fisheries depletion, SLR etc and well you get the picture. Sorry folks.
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Climate-Portals/139434822741700

  16. Paul Magnus says:

    interesting….

    No Hurricane Warning for What Could Be the Most Expensive Storm in History
    http://www.accuweather.com
    Hours before landfall, AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers urged the National Hurricane Center (NHC) to reverse its decision to not issue hurricane or tropical storm warnings for Sandy.

  17. sailrick says:

    small typo in the article = heavily populated east coast rather than out to see

    Sea?

  18. Joan Savage says:

    I enjoyed your nimble and on-point answers in the NewsHour piece.

    The NewsHour caught your Sandy/Cassandra alliteration and made it part of their caption! Great job, Joe!

    “ANALYSIS AIR DATE: Oct. 31, 2012
    Is Sandy a ‘Cassandra’? How Cities Should Prepare for Future Natural Disasters”

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/climate-change/july-dec12/climate_10-31.html

  19. Ozonator says:

    I think they just used Joe Romm for a cameo. It seemed that their ad for the green railroad moving coal a mile on a gallon of Native American tears lasted longer.

  20. idunno says:

    Hi Joe,

    As the clean-up gets underway, Naomi Klein’s work to document the Bush response to Katrina in “The Shock Doctrine” seems apposite.

    http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine/resources/part7/chapter20

  21. Dan Galpern says:

    Good job overall on the Newshour, Joe, but next time drop the phrase “you know,” keep your hands down, button your suit jacket, and do not refer to the President simply as “Obama.”

  22. fj says:

    Tailored to the anti-science crowd: Now there’s a conspiracy theory that the military is controlling the weather instead of well-established scientific methods & explanations for hurricane Sandy; instead of thinking things through clearly & rationally.

    Probably a good laugh to see the types of doctors these anti-science crowds go to: funny clothed & head dresses, rattles, chants & all . . .