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How Arctic Ice Loss Amplified Superstorm Sandy — Oceanography Journal

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"How Arctic Ice Loss Amplified Superstorm Sandy — Oceanography Journal"

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We’ve written extensively about how global warming worsened the impact of Superstorm Sandy.

Now a new article, “Superstorm Sandy: A Series of Unfortunate Events?” (PDF here) connects the dots even more explicitly:

Cornell and Rutgers researchers report in the March issue of Oceanography that the severe loss of summertime Arctic sea ice — attributed to greenhouse warming — appears to enhance Northern Hemisphere jet stream meandering, intensify Arctic air mass invasions toward middle latitudes, and increase the frequency of atmospheric blocking events like the one that steered Hurricane Sandy west into the densely populated New York City area.

Figure 1a. Atmospheric conditions during Hurricane Sandy’s transit along the eastern seaboard of the United States, including the invasion of cold Arctic air into the middle latitudes of North America and the high-pressure blocking pattern in the northwest Atlantic.

The lead author is Charles H. Greene, director of Cornell’s Ocean Resources and Ecosystems program. Coauthor Jennifer A. Francis of Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences has written extensively on  how arctic ice loss is driving extreme weather:

The piece notes “there is increasing evidence that the loss of summertime Arctic sea ice due to green- house warming stacks the deck in favor of”:

  1. Larger amplitude meanders in the jet stream,
  2. More frequent invasions of Arctic air masses into the middle latitudes, and
  3. More frequent blocking events of the kind that steered Sandy to the west

Figure 1b. After the convergence of tropical and extra-tropical storm systems, the hybrid Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey and New York, bringing strong winds, storm surge, and flooding to areas near the coast and blizzard conditions to Appalachia.

So while this does appear to have been the perfect storm, we can, unfortunately, expect many more as we move toward ice-free arctic conditions in the coming years (see “Experts Warn ‘Near Ice-Free Arctic In Summer’ In A Decade If Volume Trends Continue“).

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35 Responses to How Arctic Ice Loss Amplified Superstorm Sandy — Oceanography Journal

  1. B Waterhouse says:

    PDF link bad

  2. We get it. I question wither the planning commissions of very many communities “gets it”. Yet, they could become a strong force for both climate mitigation and adaptation if they only learned to “think globally, act locally.” I suggest that all planning commissions be required to read the work of buildings from either Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) or Architecture 2030… or better yet, both.

    Another target for persuasion should be state insurance commissions to make sure that property and liability insurance carries proper climate risk.

    • BobbyL says:

      Whether planning commissions or planning boards get it or not may really not matter too much because in most towns I think they go about their business in fear of being sued by developers. Not many towns are willing to run up large expenses in court over a development battle. It is hard to stop bad projects from being built, particularly I would guess when there is a lot of money to be made by providing ocean views.

      • dwight says:

        The trouble is that sea ice volume has decreased by a factor of about four, which is a BIG deal. But the two ice cubes shown differ in volume by a factor of 4^3, or 64.

    • BobbyL says:

      We really need Congress to pass PACE energy efficiency legislation. Things were on course for retrofitting homes for energy efficiency until Freddie and Fannie showed up with objections. Most of the buildings that will be around in 2050 are already here. Far too many are energy inefficient but improvements can be very expensive. It going to very difficult to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reach targets with all this wasted energy. PACE energy efficiency programs seemed to be the answer.

  3. Paul Klinkman says:

    And, the story in the daily briefing right below says that the ice pack off the coast of Alaska/Canada is starting out this March as broken-up pancake ice, with solar-absorbing leads in the ice right now at the peak of ice extent. The winds are going to get behind the fragile ice and smash it up pretty quickly into non-covering little ice chunks, which will then melt in the rapidly heating spring ocean.

    Then, I guess we get more Sandys.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      And Sandy’s big brothers and sisters. An open-ended process as more energy enters the climate system.

      • Solar Jim says:

        Our pathological Battlestar Galactica human “eco-no-my” is dropping the planet’s Radiation Shields. Warf says destruction could be imminent, unless evasive actions are taken. Suggest: Cut fossil subsidies immediately.

    • One of the more interesting things about the energy content of storms is not so much that they carry more energy but that they are able to grow much larger. Even if the atmosphere does not store more energy per cubic meter, the number of total cubic meters affected increases. Hence the very, very large extent of Sandy, one which had weather reporters in awe.

  4. dwight says:

    Good article, but the graphic is very misleading. The ratio of the volume of those two ice cubes is the cube of the effect you are trying to show. The loss is dramatic enough, they don’t need to try to make is misleadingly so.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      I like that graphic, Dwight, since it’s vivid, and makes the forces easier to grasp.
      You sound like you know what you’re talking about with respect to the ratios, but I don’t think the graph is implying quantities in any case.

      • dwight says:

        The trouble is that sea ice volume has decreased by a factor of about four, which is a BIG deal. But the two ice cubes shown differ in volume by a factor of 4^3, or 64.

        • question says:

          I hate to say this, but as far as I can tell the chart is right. The ratio of the ice volume is 16855/3261 = 5.169 So the cube root is 1.73. The cube on the left is about 2.5 units on a side (using the convenient graph paper they are sitting on), and the one of the right looks to be a shade under 1.5 units across. Say 1.45 units. Then 2.5/1.45=1.72 so the graphic is about right. Am I missing something?

          • I agree. The graphic is pretty accurate. The height of the first cube is roughly 10, the other, roughly 4. The width of #1 is a little less than 3, #2 is 2. The depth of #1 is 3, #2, 2. So 10x3x3=90, and 4x2x2=16. 16 is about 20% of 90, yes?

  5. Meanwhile, in Corvallis, Oregon:

    Since the beginning of this calendar year, we’ve had 33% of our normal rainfall for the winter season. That wasn’t predicted in earlier global warming models. What was/is supposed to happen is that wetter areas get wetter, dryer areas get dryer. But if this keeps up, we will definitely have a drought in Oregon this year. (The weather year is from Sept. 30 – Oct. 1, and we’re down about 18% for that period — most of the rain loss coming over the past three months.)

    Time will tell, but I’m thinking that the older models, while they did account for the increased warming in the Arctic, didn’t account for the slowdown and increased wobbling of the jet stream. Could there be a blocking pattern that’s keeping Oregon from getting rain?

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      I don’t know about yours but our charts just get messier by the day with highs and lows coming and going in strange places and strange directions. Let’s hope you don’t get all that missing %, or more, in one hit, ME

    • dhogaza says:

      Well, for one thing, the decline in sea ice has been much more rapid than models predicted. Add to that your correct (AFAIK) guess that they also don’t show the increasing “wobbliness”, at least to the extent being observed, and the picture isn’t pleasant. I don’t know if the major reason they don’t seem to project this has been due to underestimating the decline of sea ice vs. not modeling the consequences quite right.

      If models had been predicting this increase in “wobbliness” then this paper emphasizing it and linking it to Sandy wouldn’t be so newsworthy.

    • And now for the astonishingly bad news. Because of delays in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, if we stopped placing all CO2 in the atmosphere today, it would be about 100 years before we reached 350 ppm CO2, a level considerably higher than it should be.

      Thus, we can look forward to increasing droughts for decades to come. What that means in terms of locations where water runs off and is not replaced is empty streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This has astonishing consequences.

      Take a look at the report cited in this column http://www.sddt.com/Commentary/article.cfm?Commentary_ID=176&SourceCode=20130228tza&_t=Ladies+and+gentlemen+water+is+served#.UUTmX65gL9s

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        In light of the long time it will take to see greenhouse gases fall back to safe levels, what do you think of actions like albedo increase, by, for instance painting all possible surfaces reflective white? I’m in favour of massive reforestation and biochar sequestration, too, and not, definitely, in favour of stratospheric injection of aerosols, needless to say. I see an advantage of these sort of ‘low-level’ actions being their capacity to get large groups of people directly involved, which will help in the psychological healing process.

  6. I had an insight in 2005 that it’s all about the ice cap. If the ice cap goes, then the jet stream will get immediately wonky. That insight, plus the fear-inspired over-reaction that gave us the War on Terror, plus the influence of the Christian right in government, added up to my novel.

    This is further–and painful–confirmation about that intuition. The ice cap is one of Earth’s vital organs. It plays a central role in planetary health, specifically for agriculture. If the ice cap goes, then agriculture goes, too.

    We will not be the only ones who experience shock, anger, and fear in that scenario. So will the largely Muslim Third World. Their emotions will be directed toward the controllers of fossil fuels, and they may well act on those emotions. And we will react their actions exactly as we reacted to 9/11, only more so, because we also will be hungry, psychologically traumatized, and dealing with our own violent social unrest.

    • Healthy organ? No. Heat sink, yes. It’s more akin to air conditioning using ice blocks, and when the blocks are gone, the air conditioning does not work so well.

      • Solar Jim says:

        Or, once the ice shield against incoming radiation is removed and dark ocean exposed, the difference might be calculated as heat energy of so many thermonuclear weapons per day. Not to mention trauma to Arctic wildlife.

  7. Matt Owens says:

    Arctic sea ice is in a steep decline and will only get worse in the coming decades, but if we act now, we can prevent even worse from happening by the end of this century… check this out, if you want how the models project the Arctic to warm up: http://climatewatch.typepad.com/blog/2013/03/arctic-is-warming-melting-and-making-things-worse-definition-of-slippery-slope.html

  8. Camburn says:

    There are several things wrong with the Green PDF.

    I will start by exhibiting “Long Island Express” The track was very similar.

    • dhogaza says:

      So? The fact that not every storm has been impacted by global warming doesn’t show that Sandy was not impacted by global warming.

      Just as the fact that some people die of natural causes doesn’t prove that guns don’t kill people.

      • The first two people I knew who died of lung cancer were non-smokers. That doesn’t prove (or even suggest) that tobacco is non-carcinogenic. They are simply unrelated facts.

      • Let’s be clear about one thing: global warming from the greenhouse effect creates ALL storms.

        If not for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet would be around -2.2 F. The 57 F rise in temperature is why we have moisture in the air which creates the kinds of storms people both like and fear.

        The fact that all storms and the environment generally have more energy (heat) in them is a natural consequence of the greenhouse effect. That there is variability from storm to storm should not confuse the basic reality that there is more energy added each day to the oceans, ice, environmental and atmosphere of Earth.

        • The discussion is about the path and behavior of Sandy, and the declining ice distorted the jet stream to amplify it and direct to the west.

          I think we’re all clear that the greenhouse effect is necessary for weather.

          We’re simply commenting that just because the Long Island Express may have followed a similar path (not sure that it did) does not disprove a link between Sandy and climate change any more than non-smokers dying of cancer disproves a link between cancer and tobacco.

  9. I think it would be more useful if the basic explanation started off with “more energetic (hot) air passing further north displacing cold air further south due to a fully trapped atmosphere moving in response to all other air movements.

    Instead, there is a complex set of graphs which, while accurate in their own world of lingo, tends to overlook the more basic story of what is happening. The complexity tends to obscure the more fundamental appreciation for why this atmospheric behavior makes entire sense as the energy content increases.

  10. fj says:

    The somewhat tongue-in-cheek neutral tone of the conclusion of the original report ignores certain realities following the aftermath of Sandy such as dramatic changes in FEMA-backed flood insurance and NYS Governor Cuomo seeking 400 $million to buy out homeowners in devastated areas at pre Sandy rates; to convert these areas to storm-buffering marsh lands.

  11. Alex P says:

    Or if you want to avoid a potential https error ;-0 :

    http://www.tos.org/oceanography/archive/26-1_greene.pdf