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Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions

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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.


Two skateboarders use a poncho as a sail to harness the powerful winds of Hurricane Sandy along Virginia Beach, VA on October 28, 2012. Video by Brenda Ekwurzel.

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.

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.

Feature Image: Courtesy of NOAA

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , , , ,

About the author: Brenda Ekwurzel is a senior climate scientist and assistant director of climate research and analysis at UCS. 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). See Brenda's full bio.

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  • Phil Beckman

    The article states “To make matters worse, local rises in sea level off the Northeast coast are among the highest sea level rise rates in the world.”

    Sea levels do not rise higher in some areas than others. Rather land subsidence or “rebound” occur at different rates in different places. If the seas are rising, they are rising uniformly. Any local differentiation in rate has to do with the land rising or subsiding. Finland is growing by 2.7 square miles per year because of “ice age rebound,” that is, the decompressing of the earth that was compressed by massive ice overburden in times past. If the sea levels are “dropping” dramatically in Finland (and other regions), then simple physics dictates that sea levels “rise” in other regions.

    The old Ostrobothnian 17th century seaport of Jakobstadt is now almost a full mile from the sea. I don’t write this to contradict “global warming” necessarily, but things are more complicated than many descriptions would suggest.

  • Alexander

    Where’s all the pious scare talk gone? Where’s the slippery snake oil sales pitch? Are you suggesting this terrible hurricane could not have been entirely prevented if Americans only had purchased some minimum number of electric cars? You are deviating from the official UCS talking points!

  • Chris Austill

    Thanks for this posting. I think there is a real challenge to communicate the urgency of addressing climate change issues, while not overstating the evidence for the effects of climate change on any one particular event.

    One issue that you didn’t address fully was the issue of sea surface temperatures being far higher than normal. Can you tell us if this is a trend, (i.e., that is sea surface temperatures being on the rise over a period of time), or if this fluctuates naturally? It seems to me that if this is a trend, then that is something to think about in terms of hurricanes and climate change.

    Thanks.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/news/experts/brenda-ekwurzel.html Brenda Ekwurzel

      Chris,
      You raise an important point about our warming oceans. Not only were the sea surface temperatures along Hurricane Sandy’s track far above normal for this time of year, the long-term trend for global sea surface temperature has been rising. You can see the NOAA graph here (http://1.usa.gov/WeIxoj) and dig even deeper into the science behind this graph in the Smith and Reynolds 2002 Journal of Climate paper (http://1.usa.gov/YvISQZ). -Brenda

    • http://NA A. Gilbert

      READ THE BIBLE!! If you want to know the answers!

      • Justin McCullough

        Ha ha, you’re joking right?

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