Did Climate Change Help Create ‘Frankenstorm’?

As the East Coast braces for a possible direct hit from Hurricane Sandy, meteorologists are closely watching the storm’s “freak” formation. They’re calling it “unprecedented and bizarre,” a “perfect storm,” and a “frankenstorm” that could cause historic storm surges, last for multiple days, and cause over a billion dollars in damage.

After hitting Jamaica and heading toward the Bahamas, experts say it’s likely that Sandy could swing into the Northeast and hit the coast somewhere between Washington, DC and Boston, impacting people all along the Atlantic seaboard. Projections for Sandy’s path are still uncertain, but models show that the threat is increasing.

A confluence of factors are coming together to make the storm unprecedented. As Sandy moves through the Atlantic, it is expected to combine with an early winter storm from the continental U.S., causing pressure to drop — potentially reaching pressure levels of a category 3 or 4 hurricane with winds over 115 miles per hour.

Brian Norcross of the Weather Channel described the storm this way on his facebook page: “This is a beyond-strange situation. It’s unprecedented and bizarre.

Another factor under consideration is climate change. Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is “caused” by steroids.

As Kevin Trenberth, former head of the Climate Analysis Section at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, has written, all superstorms “are affected by climate change”:

The air is on average warmer and moister than it was prior to about 1970 and in turn has likely led to a 5–10 % effect on precipitation and storms that is greatly amplified in extremes. The warm moist air is readily advected onto land and caught up in weather systems as part of the hydrological cycle, where it contributes to more intense precipitation events that are widely observed to be occurring.

The climate change link may be more than just more precipitation. A 2010 study found “Global warming is the main cause of a significant intensification in the North Atlantic Subtropical High.” Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman explains a possible influence:

Recent studies have shown that blocking patterns have appeared with greater frequency and intensity in recent years….

While it is not unusual to have a high pressure area near Greenland, its intensity is striking for this time of year. As Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang wrote on Wednesday, the North Atlantic Oscillation, which helps measure this blocking flow, “is forecast to be three standard deviations from the average — meaning this is an exceptional situation.”

Coastal areas may be hit with storm surges of up to 6 feet, potentially reaching the highest levels ever recorded. The storm could last as long as 4–6 days, bleeding into the election.

The storm comes at a unique time politically. In August, the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida was disrupted by strong rain and flooding caused by Hurricane Isaac. Two days later in his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney mocked President Obama’s pledge to deal with climate change and “slow the rise of the oceans” — causing uproarious laughter among delegates. And for the first time since 1988, the presidential candidates did not talk about climate change during debates — even as data shows that the U.S. is experiencing the most extreme weather ever recorded.

“The climate has shifted to a new state capable of delivering rare and unprecedented weather events,” explained meteorologist Jeff Masters earlier this year.

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