Storms Will Be Stronger In A Warming World

Hurricane Sandy approaches the Atlantic coast October 29, 2012. (NASA image.)

By Adam Voiland, via NASA’s Earth Observatory

Few images are as beautiful and as terrifying as a satellite view of a hurricane about to make landfall. On October 29, 2012, the Suomi NPP satellite captured an ominous nighttime view of Sandy — an enormous hybrid storm that was part hurricane, part Nor‘easter — churning off the coast of New Jersey.

The string of city lights that stretches from Washington to Boston was mostly gone, blanketed by thick, ghostly storm clouds. One of the most brightly lit cities in the world, New York, was little more than a faint smudge through Sandy’s clouds.

In a matter of hours, that smudge of light would go dark. Large swaths of Manhattan were under water. The Rockaways were on fire. Rooftops along the New Jersey shore became temporary islands for people escaping a wall of seawater that surged inland.

Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to much of lower Manhattan, New York. (Photo: Several seconds, Flickr)

Was Superstorm Sandy an expression of a “new normal” for our weather? Was it a storm pumped up by global warming?

“If you look at the unique set of circumstances in which Sandy emerged and you know something about meteorology and climate,” says Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, “it’s hard not to ask yourself these kinds of questions.”

Research meteorologist Marshall Shepherd. (Photo: Marshall Shepherd, University of Georgia)

Sandy is not the only recent storm to make people ask questions about climate change and weather. In 2010, an epic winter storm dubbed “Snowmageddon” dumped more than half a meter (2 feet) of snow across many parts of the U.S. East Coast. And in April 2011, tornadoes killed more than 364 Americans — the most ever in a month. The rash of twisters etched scars of destruction on the landscape so long and wide that they could be seen from space. The United States set records in 2011 and 2012 for the number of weather disasters that exceeded $1 billion in losses; most were storms.

Hackleburg High School in Alabama was destroyed by a tornado in April 2011. (Photo: Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

All of these weather events occurred as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been rising higher than it’s been for at least 100,000 years. Scientists are nearly certain that the buildup of carbon dioxide has already sparked changes in Earth’s atmosphere and ecosystems. The lowest layer of the atmosphere (the troposphere) has warmed markedly, especially at high latitudes. So have the world’s oceans. Heat waves and droughts have grown more likely and more extreme. Arctic ice is melting at a record pace, and the snowy landscapes of the far north have started melting earlier each year.

Given all the change that has already take place, it’s reasonable to wonder if climate change has affected storms as well. “After the tornadoes in 2011, I was flooded with calls from reporters,” says Anthony Del Genio, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). “People wanted quick, definitive answers. The trouble is that’s not where the science is.”

Historically, research on tornadoes, hurricanes, and other types of storms has focused on short-term forecasting, not on understanding how storms are changing over time. Reliable, long-term records of storms are scarce, and the different reporting and observing methods have left many scientists and meteorologists feeling skeptical. But the study of storminess and climate has begun to mature, says Del Genio, and a consensus is emerging: for several types of storms, global warming may prime the atmosphere to produce fewer but stronger storms.

This piece originally appeared on Earth Observatory, and is reprinted here with permission.

12 Responses to Storms Will Be Stronger In A Warming World

  1. Paul Klinkman says:

    I’ve seen a clearer picture of tornado destruction. It’s on Google Earth. The F-5 tornado chopped through the south side of Joplin, Missouri. If you look closely at that west-to-east wide brown line across the city you’ll see that all the trees and all the houses are gone for blocks and blocks.

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    I suspect that the NYC subway system is going to flood every ten years, until the day when it’s more like every five years.

    Worse, NYC has their ostrich head planted firmly in the ground so they can’t imagine what a category 4 storm would do to their skyscrapers.

  3. fj says:

    From what I understand NOAA predicts lots of extreme events in North America and, to weather this stuff extremely advanced ecoagile policies and adaptations must prevail.

    On the extreme end the fate of large cities like New York might be in jeopardy if they cannot respond fast enough.

    Action on climate change at wartime speed must ramp up immediately.

  4. BobbyL says:

    Whether future storms are stronger or not if sea level keeps rising due to global warming there will be big problems down the road. Expect a few large cities that are most vulnerable to receive federal money for adaptation measures but other places may have to fend for themselves.

  5. Paul Magnus says:

    and larger and hang around longer….

  6. Slight correction…

    CO2 levels are higher than they’ve been for 3 million years.

  7. Patrick Kearney says:

    The Liabilities for Big Oil and the well funded Global Warming Denial Industry are mounting as Mother Nature is revealing the truth of Global Warming.
    The Industry today is liable for every nickel spent by Governments, Insurance Companies and the Public because it for so long interfered with legislation that could have prevented or reduced the frequency and severity of the storms. Its time the Global Warming Denial Industry begins to pay for the damage it is causing. Without the GOP as a legislative blocking mechanism the Denial Industry would have been ineffective . The GOP will be held accountable and ultimately answer to the American Public but more importantly the world. The GOP’s calculated interference and subversion of Global Warming Mitigation Policy and Legislation has directly and intentionally destroyed every attempt by the U.S at forming international treaties and agreements that would have reduced the damage the World is seeing today. While the Diabolical Denial Industry and their overpaid GOP subversive puppets continue in lock step to lie to the American Public , litigation is in development to hold them accountable for their Crimes Against Humanity. The GOP will continue to provide evidence to National and International Courts by blocking Global Warming Mitigation Legislation and protecting the Fossil Fuel Industries environmentally destructive interest. Current and future generations will not allow the GOP to continue profiting from the destruction of the planet and the Earths Atmosphere. Students have filed suit in all 50 states under the Public Trust Doctrine claiming that Congresses first responsibility is to protect its Citizens not conspire to profit from the destruction of their Atmosphere. The Students suits have all been successful and are opening the door for Liability, Compensation, Punitive Damages, Criminal and Civil Prosecution. Its hard to imagine the criminal prosecution of a Congressman for the many crimes committed when they conspire with an industry and cause harm to the public. Its even harder to visualize one being prosecuted at the Hague for Crimes Against Humanity however, the litigation filed today could save the planet tomorrow.

  8. Dick Smith says:

    I forget sometimes how pleasurable it is to read comments at a mediated site.

    Here is the flip side of what you posted. It’s an incredibly stupid op ed in the Patriot News by a local on-air weatherman Tom Russell, who is the chief meteorologist for WHP-TV in Harrisburg. And,many of the denier comments — probably by the same person using different names — are…I’m speechless.

  9. Patrick Kearney says:

    fj you are so right in ramping up and attacking the issue like a military mission. First the American Public needs to get behind it and thats where our problem exist. If we introduce a new American Energy Mission that utilizes Renewables on a massive scale from coast to coast to employ everyone, we stand a chance. We need the country to approve of American Energy just as they did the Apollo Missions. The Manufacturing, Installation and Service jobs along with Transmission and Distribution Lines will create new employment for millions of Americans, eliminate our need for Foreign Oil while reducing our CO2 Emissions the required annual 6% to stabilize the atmosphere. American Power with every electron 100% made by Americans. Could we actually unite the country and overcome the division thats been financed by Big Oil and directed by the GOP ? Knowing that the storms would eventually prove we’ve been lied to, Big Oil has used the divide and conquer strategy to prolong their existence because they’ve known that if Americans ever got together and focused our resources in a united direction, Big Oil would cease to exist and Americans would have damn near Free power from proven Renewable Technologies that every other country is now using.
    Yeah an American Energy Mission will succeed if Americans are first educated in exactly whats happened with Global Warming Denial. Much of the political division in the country is with out question financed by Big Oils strategy of divide and conquer. That will also take a little education and time to digest the facts on how we’ve all been misled.

  10. Patrick Kearney says:

    Your right but all of the large population centers on water, all at the same time needing Federal Dollars is an amount we will not have unless we rapidly cease Big Oils Assets in the liability settlements that will be required by the American Public for their Denial Industries successful blocking of mitigation efforts. The efforts that could have prevented the need to protect our cities in the first place.
    The point Im trying to make is the bill is being handed to everyone but the liable parties and we have to get that straightened out before we spend everything and to do what is required we will.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Good God! Three million years ago??!! That was when our hominid ancestors were at exactly the same stage of evolution as are today’s Rightwing denialists. Ye Gods-I see through their machinations, at last! They wish to return the world to an epoch in which they feel more comfortable, with care-free knuckle-dragging and much leaping and capering in the trees. Ah, the poor nostalgic fools.