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Hurricane Sandy and climate change: A scientist answers common questions

October 31st, 2012

Brenda Ekwurzel, Union of Concerned Scientists

As Hurricane Sandy approached Virginia Beach, I watched churning surf form a troublesome backdrop to two skateboarders harnessing the wind to propel themselves rapidly along the boardwalk. Those same winds were piling up water to form a dangerous storm surge and portended a powerful blow that would ultimately cause widespread devastation throughout the region. Since that moment, I have been asked many questions about Hurricane Sandy. Here are answers to the most common ones.

Can we expect more extreme weather with climate change?

For extreme events observed since 1950, the evidence for the links with climate change are strongest for heat waves and coastal flooding and strong for intense precipitation in some areas and drought in others. The current state of scientific understanding is less clear for hurricanes overall, though aspects of hurricane development are expected to be influenced by a warming planet. These include warmer sea surface temperature during hurricane season, a warmer atmosphere concentrating precipitation, and higher storm surges compared to a century ago due to sea level rise.

Why was the storm surge in New York City so historic?

A nightmare combination occurred to make this storm surge even worse for lower Manhattan – a simultaneous high tide, full moon, and sea level rise. The first two are entirely natural. The latter is influenced by climate change. To make matters worse, local rises in sea level off the Northeast coast are among the highest sea level rise rates in the world.

Isn’t it unusual to have a hurricane so close to Halloween and so far north?

Although late-season hurricanes in the mid-Atlantic or New England have occurred (Benjamin Franklin made barometric measurements during a November 2, 1743, hurricane that passed through Philadelphia before forming a storm surge that overtopped Boston wharves), they are rare in large part because the sea surface temperatures farther north tend to be cooler, which typically weakens the storm as it travels to higher latitudes and downgrades to a tropical storm or tropical depression.

Flooding in Ventnor Heights, Oct. 30, 2012

What contributed to Sandy’s devastating power?

According to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center analysis, Sandy traversed sea surface temperatures that were far above average for this time of year. Warm ocean water fuels hurricanes and makes them more powerful.  Looking at the threshold contour for temperature required for hurricane development, Sandy was above this threshold along most of the storm track, which allowed it to remain a hurricane when it made landfall in New Jersey.

What can be done to better protect coastal communities?

I think of city planners as the first responders for climate change.  Local communities, including some within the vast sphere of influence of hurricane Sandy, are working with the best available science and forming climate action plans.  Unfortunately, not all communities have taken these first steps and funding cuts are taking place within the U.S. government agency NOAA, the very agency that provided accurate tracking of Hurricane Sandy.

(Dr. Ekwurzel is a climate scientist and assistant director of climate research and analysis at Union of Concerned Scientists. She has expertise on many aspects of climate variability including Arctic Ocean and sea ice, wildfires, groundwater, and coastal erosion. She holds a Ph.D. in isotope geochemistry from Columbia University – Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory).



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