Yes, Climate Change Contributed To Superstorm Sandy

by Dr. Bob Corell, Dr. Jeff Masters, and Dr. Kevin Trenberth, via Politico

As Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast last week, meteorologists and climate scientists were repeatedly asked to explain what role climate change played in amplifying the storm.

We did our best to answer: We know that a warming climate puts more energy into storms, including hurricanes, loading them with more rainfall and the stronger winds pushing more of a storm surge. That makes flooding more likely. We also know that storm surge now rides higher on sea levels that have risen over the last century due to global warming, amplifying losses where the surge strikes. On the stretch of the Atlantic Coast that spans from Norfolk to Boston, sea levels have been rising four times faster than the global average.

Overall, we know that climate change has stacked the deck so that this kind of event happens more frequently. That answer, however, prompts a deeper, more unsettling question that many want to know: is climate change worsening some recent extreme weather events like super storm Sandy?

The short answer is yes. Climate scientists broadly agree that the extreme weather we’ve seen over the past few years is exactly what we’d expect to see in a changing climate. And it’s not just Sandy; we’re on track to have the hottest year in more than a century of record-keeping in the continental United States, the country has suffered one of the most crippling droughts in history, as well as one of the worst wildfire years in history. Last year, when Hurricane Irene hit the United States, meteorologists called it “unprecedented,” yet Sandy has already outpaced the damage from Irene.

We’ll probably never know the exact point when the weather stopped being entirely natural. But we should consider Sandy—and other recent extreme weather events – an early taste of a climate-changed world, and a grim preview of the even worse to come, particularly if we continue to pump more carbon pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes up into the atmosphere.

Last weekend, millions of Americans prepared for the storm by turning to meteorologists to tell them where the storm would hit. The meteorologists relied on detailed computer models to form an accurate prediction of where it would hit and how strong it would be.

We climate scientists use models too, and our results are remarkably consistent and remarkably dire. For example, our models predicted an increase in extreme precipitation with global warming, and that’s exactly what we have witnessed. In the northeast U.S. extreme precipitation has gone up 67 percent in recent years, due to the same rain-loading action that pumped up both Sandy and Hurricane Irene. Our models also predicted more heat waves, and again that’s exactly what we have gotten as the most extreme summers are now much more frequent around the world, setting the stage for intense heat waves.This new world is expensive – damage from Sandy will be in the billions of dollars, with estimates as high as $50 billion. In 2011, the United States broke a record for the most billion dollar weather disasters in one year, fourteen, totaling $47 billion dollars. 

It’s time to stop asking when climate change will arrive. It’s here, and we need to move aggressively to curb carbon emissions while also preparing for a changed world. We are at nothing less than a critical juncture.

In addition to more extreme weather, failing to change our ways will mean extreme costs. Not acting on climate change could cost our nation more than 1 percent of GDP by 2025, or $218 billion a year, according to an analysis by Frank Ackerman, an economist at Tufts University. And it skyrockets from there, possibly to an estimated $1.8 trillion by 2100.

Fortunately, scientists have outlined what is needed to meet this challenge. We need to cut industrial carbon pollution. There are several ways to achieve that goal, many of them also money-savers, and as scientists we stand ready to help policymakers figure out the best, most cost-effective ways to do so.

This piece was originally published at Politico and was reprinted with permission.

Dr. Bob Corell is a senior policy fellow for the American Meteorological Society and former Chair of the United States Global Change Research Program; Dr. Jeff Masters is the founder and Director of Meteorology for Weather Underground and a former NOAA Hurricane Hunter; Dr. Kevin Trenberth is a Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

10 Responses to Yes, Climate Change Contributed To Superstorm Sandy

  1. Jim Baird says:

    Gentlemen, is the deeper, more unsettling question not, why are we not using natural analogies, like hurricanes, to address the problem?

  2. Peter Whitehead says:

    put al gore’s comment on t-shirts:

    “dirty energy makes dirty weather”

  3. Leif says:

    I heard an interesting term used the other day, “systemic cause.” Just as every case of lung cancer is not caused by smoking, smoking a couple of packs a day is definitely a systemic cause of lung cancer. Coal mining is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Wikipedia has this to say “A systemic problem is a problem due to issues inherent in the overall system,[1][2] rather than due to a specific, individual, isolated factor.” I think the term should be applied to climate and the weather responses there of much more often.

  4. MarkfromLexington says:

    I attended a talk titled “Wetter Weather” given by Dr. Dan Schrag, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard last night. He discussed the left turn that Sandy took and stated that up until 2007 only about 6% of the named storms took this type of left turn, but that since 2007 approximately 30% of the named storms have taken this type of left turn.

    His conclusion – the economic impact of this effect may far outweigh the impact of higher intensity of storms due to the higher ocean and atmospheric temperatures.

    If the percentage of storms that hit the east coast is increasing dramatically, this may be something to look at quite carefully.

  5. Climate Curious says:

    But /how much/ did it contribute? 50% +/- 20%?

    Unfortunately, cutting down industrial carbon pollution can be quite expensive. Especially given a damping effect it may have on the overall economy.

    “Not acting on climate change could cost our nation more than 1 percent of GDP by 2025”.

    I wonder, what is the cost of curbing down the CO2 emissions to the level needed to stop climate change? Is it less or more than, say, 1% GDP?

    Also, how certain are we that spending all that money would stop the climate change? What’s the confidence level?

  6. Anne says:

    Hoping this “R” rated comment won’t offend too much: but it occurs to me, as someone old enough to remember, that at one time “Masters & Johnson” were the go-to experts on sex. Now “Masters & Trenberth” (and Corell & Hansen et al) – are the publicly recognized experts on weather and climate chaos. What’s the difference you say? The former taught us how best to screw; the latter is teaching us how we’re all screwed. (Apologies, we’re in such polite company here, but sometimes I just can’t help it.)

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    In a system, a change in one critical part, e.g. carbon, causes ripples throughout the system, changing every part, ME

  8. EDpeak says:

    For once I agree with some of the implications made in a “doubting” comment here, this by “Climate Curious” and I wish they did not use that “1% of gdp” stat without adding to it “under an analyses which assumed…” Before I add to this let me first address your question:

    “how certain are we that spending all that money would stop the climate change? What’s the confidence level?”

    The answer is when you have cancer you cannot be “certain” that you will stop the cancer by treating; you can know it’s very likely it will get worse if you do nothing but continue ‘business as usual’ Except the body does have some self healing systems and in some cases you might be one of the lucky few who go into remission; while things are much worse with the Earth; it has healing systems but they are mostly already, today, overwhelmed, by just looking at some basic numbers – for example the earth has systems to deal with *slow* increases in co2 to avoid spikes in ocean pH but we’ve added so lightning fast by geologic standards, that the spike has already started: the oceans already have 30% more acid concentration than pre-industrial levels. This just one example how natural “healing” (or “re-balancing”) systems of the earth are already overwhelmed, so we have it worse than the cancer patient you might imagine maybe going into remission without any treatment.

    What we DO know with near 100% certainty – as certain as our understanding of laws of physics as basic as grativy for all intents and purposes, is that if we do nothing, then it’s almost certain that the co2 spike, ocean acidification spike, and warming will continue and in fact, will accelerate with positive feedbacks.

    As to the GDP etc – it’s ok to quote with “under these assumptions” a study, I can’t blame them for that if they add that qualifier. But the broad statement is vastly under-stating the risks – this is Russian Roulette since a sudden big positive feedback could easily cause such extreme world wide (or near U.S., regional) havoc on the planet thorugh extreme storms, rising oceans, degraded web of life in the ocean that we depend on including microorganisms at bottom of food chain, hurt by acidification, including oxygen making organisms in ocean and trees, etc, that the devastation could be truly incalculable – it could be a little less than 1% of GDP but could be a little more than 1% but could from these examles alone which the science tells us are very real (and growing) risks – could easily be much, much more than 1% – true society-wide disaster scale damage is not only possible but of growing probability (causing a large release of methane from thawing permafrost or oceans warming is yet another trigger we’re pressing on…do we keep pressing to find out how hard before the trigger causes bullet to fire? That’s the only way to be 100% certain of how hard a pressure point on which trigger before it shoots bullet..)

  9. Climate Curious says:

    Well, that article says that the cost will be between 1% and 3% world (!!!) GDP. Which basically says that the “fix” will cost up to 3x times more than the “problem”.

    This ignores the catastrophic positive feedback mechanisms that EDpeak mentioned above – and nobody says whether limiting GW to 2-3 degrees will avoid triggering those mechanisms.

    A positive feedback mechanism would cause runaway warming, that won’t be affected by curbing CO2 emissions.

    If we already have a runaway wildfire, spending time to find and put out the match that started it makes little sense.