Hurricane Sandy could prove to be the most devastating hurricane ever to hit the northeastern U.S. New Jersey Governor Christie said Tuesday that the damage on the Jersey shore is likely to be the worst ever. Over 50% of Hoboken, NJ is under water. The subways in New York City are flooded. Damage will be at least $15 billion. Three lives have been lost so far.
The storm is still raging but climatologists and meteorologists are being asked if climate change due caused Sandy. It is too early to make that determination, but most agree that climate change was a big contributing factor making the perfect storm wetter and more intense than it would have been a decade or two ago. Most of the destruction from Sandy is from flooding.
Sandy began as a normal hurricane albeit much larger in size measuring over 900 miles in width. The storm was strengthened by a low pressure trough from the Arctic that dipped down into its path. The full moon also added to the “perfect storm” like it did in 1991 with Hurricane Grace then labeled the “perfect storm”. Grace never made land fall, however.
In the past, a late-year hurricane like Sandy would lose some energy as it entered the colder ocean waters off the northeast coast. This did not happen this year. The reason, the ocean is not as cold ad it used to be, or put differently, the ocean is warmer.
Kevin Trenberth, who heads the climate analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Stephanie Pappas, senior writer for “LiveScience,” there is reason to think that climate change could be making Sandy wetter and stronger. “The climate influences on this are what we might call the ‘new normal,’ the changed environment this storm is operating in,” Trenbeth said.
Hurricanes and tropical cyclones are fueled by warm water evaporating into the air. Ocean surface temperatures are up 0.9 degrees Fahrenheit (0.5 degrees Celsius) from about a century ago, a fact that may boost storm intensity, Trenbeth said.
A recent study released in September in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, for example, found that hurricanes and tropical cyclones ramp up faster than they did 25 years ago. Globally, these storms reach Category 3 status, with winds up to 129 mph (208 kph), nine hours earlier on average than they used to.
Also in September, another study by the House Committee on Natural Resources Minority staff concluded that climate change will lead to more disastrous storms. In July, a former global-warming skeptic, Richard Mueller wrote an Op-Ed in the NY Times saying he was wrong. Mueller’s research concluded global warming is real, and it is here, and it is affecting weather. His study was financed by the Koch Brothers who hoped for a different conclusion.
Trenberth said in “LifeScience” that with warmer ocean surfaces comes warmer air above the oceans, and with warmer temperatures, this ocean air now holds about 4 percent more moisture than it did in the 1970s. “In general, we estimate it increases the risk that the intensity of hurricanes can be somewhat greater and particularly the rainfall from hurricanes is about 5 to 10 percent greater than it otherwise would be.”
In the case of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which dumped at least 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain along its track on the Gulf Coast, that means about 1 inch was attributable to climate change, Trenberth added.
The deadly storm is still wreaking havoc on the lives and property of millions of Americans. There will be debate in the months ahead about what part climate change played in this storm. The bottom line is it was a contributing factor. Another certainty is that this is only the beginning unless we as a society get serious about ending carbon pollution.
This election in many ways is a choice between carbon pollution and alternate energy. Will Sandy be a wake-up call? Will those on Fox News and the big-oil-financed science-deniers in the GOP spin the story in such a way so as to cause many to hide their heads? We will see.
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