Is Sandy a Global Warming Superstorm? Scientific American Connects the Dots.

by Cassady Craighill

October 30, 2012

A 'Blue Marble' image of the Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's most recently launched Earth-observing satellite - Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken on January 4, 2012.


This blog by Scientific American‘s senior editorMark Fischetti addresses the science of Hurricane Sandy and its connections to climate change. And we appreciate sound science around here.

Stay updated on Hurricane Sandy aftermath and cleanup including Greenpeace’s solar truck, the Rolling Sunlight, as it makes it way through New York neighborhoods providing power.

If youve followed the U.S. news and weather in the past 24 hours you have no doubt run across a journalist or blogger explaining why its difficult to say that climate change could be causing big storms like Sandy. Well, no doubt here: it is.

The hedge expressed by journalists is that many variables go into creating a big storm, so thesize of Hurricane Sandy, or any specific storm, cannot be attributed to climate change. Thats true, and its based on good science. However, that statement doesnotmean that we cannot say that climate change is making storms bigger. It is doing just thata statement also based on good science, and one that the insurance industry is embracing, by the way. (Huh? More on that in a moment.)

Scientists have long taken a similarly cautious stance, but more are starting to drop the caveat and link climate change directly to intense storms and other extreme weather events, such as the warm 2012 winter in the eastern U.S. and the frigid one in Europe at the same time. They are emboldened because researchers have gotten very good in the past decade at determining what affects the variables that create big storms. Hurricane Sandy got large because it wandered north along the U.S. coast, where ocean water is still warm this time of year, pumping energy into the swirling system. But it got even larger when a coldJet Streammade a sharp dip southward from Canada down into the eastern U.S. The cold air, positioned against warm Atlantic air, added energy to the atmosphere and therefore to Sandy, just as it moved into that region, expanding the storm even further.

Heres where climate change comes in. The atmospheric pattern that sent the Jet Stream south is colloquially known as a blocking higha big pressure center stuck over the very northern Atlantic Ocean and southern Arctic Ocean. And what led to that? A climate phenomenon called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)essentially, the state of atmospheric pressure in that region. This state can be positive or negative, and it had changed from positive to negative two weeks before Sandy arrived. The climate kicker? Recentresearch by Charles Greeneat Cornell University and other climate scientists has shown that as moreArctic sea ice meltsin the summerbecause of global warmingthe NAO is more likely to be negative during the autumn and winter. A negative NAO makes the Jet Stream more likely to move in a big, wavy pattern across the U.S., Canada and the Atlantic, causing the kind of big southward dip that occurred during Sandy.

Climate change amps up other basic factors that contribute to big storms. For example, the oceans have warmed, providing more energy for storms. And the Earths atmosphere has warmed, so it retains more moisture, which is drawn into storms and is then dumped on us.

These changes contribute to all sorts of extreme weather. In a recent op-ed in theWashington Post, James Hansen at NASAs Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York blamed climate change for excessive drought, based on six decades of measurements, not computer models: Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

He went on to write that the Russian heat wave of 2010 and catastrophicdroughts in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 could each be attributed to climate change, concluding that The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.

Hanson alsoargued a year agothat Earth is entering a period of rapid climate change, so radical weather will be upon us sooner than wed like.Scientific Americanjust publisheda big feature articledetailing the same point.

Indeed, if youre a regularScientific Americanreader, you might recall that another well-regarded scientist predicted behemoths such as Sandy in 2007.The article, by Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was presciently titled, Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes. Trenberths extensive analysis concluded that although the number of Atlantic hurricanes each year might not rise, the strength of them would.

Hurricane Sandy has emboldened more scientists to directly link climate change and storms, without the hedge. On Monday, as Sandy came ashore in New Jersey, Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, tweeted: Would this kind of storm happen without climate change? Yes. Fueled by many factors. Is [the] storm stronger because of climate change? Yes.

Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate Systems Research Center at the University of Massachusetts,was quotedin theVancouver Sunsaying: When storms develop, when they do hit the coast, they are going to be bigger and I think thats a fair statement that most people could sign onto.

A recent, peer-reviewed study published by several authors in theProceedings of the National Academy of Scienceconcludes: The largest cyclones are most affected by warmer conditions and we detect a statistically significant trend in the frequency of large surge events (roughly corresponding to tropical storm size) since 1923.

Greg Laden, an anthropologist who blogs about culture and science, wrote this week inan online piece: There is always going to be variation in temperature or some other weather related factor, but global warming raises the baseline. Thats true. But the corollary to that is NOT that you cant link climate change to a given storm. All storms are weather, all weather is the immediate manifestation of climate, climate change is about climate.

Now, as promised: If you still dont believe scientists, then believe insurance giant Munich Re. In herOctober 29 postat theThe New Yorker, writer Elizabeth Kolbert notes:

Munich Re, one of the worlds largest reinsurance firms, issued a study titled Severe Weather in North America. According to the press release that accompanied the report, Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America. While many factors have contributed to this trend, including an increase in the number of people living in flood-prone areas, the report identified global warming as one of the major culprits: Climate change particularly affects formation of heat-waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.

Insurers, scientists and journalist are beginning to drop the caveats and simply say that climate change is causing big storms. As scientists collect more and more data over time, more of them will be willing to make the same data-based statements.

Cassady Craighill

By Cassady Craighill

Cassady is a media officer for Greenpeace USA based on the East Coast. She covers climate change and energy, particularly how both issues relate to the Trump administration.

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