As Americans on the East Coast continue to pick up the pieces left behind in the wake of deadly Hurricane Sandy, many scientists and residents are wondering if an unstable climate fueled this out-of-the-ordinary megastorm.
While the timing of the hurricane isn't all that strange—late-October hurricanes are pretty common—scientists are noting the storm's huge impact area and extreme flooding could serve as further warning signs of climate change. "While you can't attribute any single storm to climate change, climate change is altering the background conditions relevant to all weather events," explains Benjamin Zaitchick, PhD, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University. "As the environment becomes warmer and moister there is an increased potential for high-intensity storms."
This 4 percent increase in global humidity means that when a storm does come along, it gathers up more water vapors to dump. This phenomenon has been on grand display in the Northeast, where as the climate heats up, high-precipitation events increased nearly 70 percent between 1958 and 2007.
Sea level rise is directly related to climate change that's fueled by man-made greenhouse gas pollution. "Climate change affects the impact of the hurricane," explains atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, PhD, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and coauthor of Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. "We've raised sea level by 7 inches over the last 100 years. That means hurricanes are occurring over an ocean that's 7 inches taller."
That might not seem like a lot, but sea level rise can inflict much more serious flooding, as we're seeing with recent storms. And there's more to come—sea level rise is accelerating faster now than even climate scientists predicted. "While you don't want to automatically cry climate change at every major event, you do want to look at trends," says Craig Childs, natural science writer and author of Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth. "Surge levels are rising. This is probably the most important piece of information you can take away."
"Though you can't tie a single storm like this to climate change, you can at least take note of rising maximum surge levels," Childs adds. "The notch on the pole keeps rising."
Warmer ocean waters also help spark stronger storms, although scientists can't parse out exactly how many more miles per hour the warmer ocean caused. While the ties between climate change, warmer waters, and stronger storms are well established, there's an active area of climate research occurring in which scientists are trying to figure out the extent to which climate change is affecting weather patterns. Hayhoe says historic ice melt in the Arctic may have played a role in guiding the trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, but that is yet to be proved definitively.
"When we see storms like Sandy take a left turn into the coast, something we haven't seen before, we need to look into why that happened," says Hayhoe. "It could be that once in a hundred years, it happens. But when we know the planet is experiencing climate change, then to ignore it when we see something interesting and different happen would be foolish."
She likens it to a person living with diabetes. "If they start showing strange symptoms, you'd want to know if it was related to diabetes," she adds.
It's Not a Natural Cycle?
What is clear to more than 99 percent of climate scientists around the world is that man-made pollution is causing this change in climate that we're currently experiencing. And you don't have to rely on scientific data to notice it. Spring is coming two weeks earlier in the Northern Hemisphere, shifting migrations and bloom times, and changing other natural events. In fact, there are more than 26,000 indicators pointing to climate change, many happening in your own backyard.
Scientists initially looked at natural cycles and considered changes in energy from the sun and volcanic and other geologic activities. "You have to look at natural suspects to make sure they aren't the things causing the warming," Hayhoe says. "But according to natural cycles and volcanoes, we should be cooling right now, and we're not.
"The only reason we can find that we're warming right now is carbon dioxide," she adds. "There's no other explanation as to why this is happening." The measurable greenhouse gases coming out of tailpipes and factories are creating an effect similar to what would happen if we'd put a gigantic extra blanket on the planet.
The 2011 report, "Warming World: Impacts by Degree," notes that "just as a sink with a drain will fill up if water enters it too quickly, human production of carbon dioxide is outstripping the Earth's natural ability to remove carbon from the air."
The resulting carbon pollution-related rising global temperature should serve as a red flag. After all, we're already seeing climate-related problems cropping up all over the country: unusual and extreme droughts, water shortages, more water for food and fiber crop irrigation, higher electricity and water bills, climate-related health issues, and a need to rebuild infrastructure to deal with the heavy rains that are becoming the norm. Climate change is even affecting the species available to hunters and fisherman, as well as increasing health care costs. A 2011 study published in the journal Health Affairs found that six climate-change-related events cost more than $14 billion in lost productivity and increased health care costs.
Read More: 11 Climate-Related Health Threats
So why is there resistance to acknowledging climate change when the science is clear? Poll data shows that as more extreme weather events unfold in the United States, residents are more likely to acknowledge climate change as a serious or very serious problem. And for those who are still holding out? Hayhoe says in 9 out of 10 cases, the reason people reject the science of climate change is because they have a problem with the solution. "A lot of solutions involve taxes and big government, essentially dirty words to Americans," she says.
Instead, she says we should be looking at the positive solutions that could come out of acknowledging and dealing with man-made climate change, things like entrepreneurship, investing in the local economy, energy dependence, and national security, along with cleaning the air and water for children. "We have to talk about these things," she says. "People won't accept the science if there's not a solution they can buy into."
"To stabilize climate, we need to reduce emissions...ultimately, we need to get emissions down to less than 10 percent of what they are today," she adds.
Big Presidential Endorsement Mentions the "C" Words
While talk of climate change was largely missing from the three presidential debates, the mayor of New York City, which was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy's wrath, certainly isn't shying away from it. The businessman and Republican-turned-Independent last week endorsed President Obama in the 2012 election, largely because of his stance on climate change. "Our climate is changing," Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote. "And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be—given [last] week's devastation—should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action."
President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney differ wildly in terms of acknowledging climate change. While President Obama recognizes the state of science that clearly links a warming planet to man-made pollution and has called it "one of the biggest issues of this generation," Republican challenger Romney—who once battled climate change in Massachusetts—mocked rising sea levels in his 2012 Republican Convention speech and does not even clearly acknowledge that man-made pollution is to blame, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence.
Published on: November 2, 2012
Updated on: November 5, 2012