Hurricane Sandy and climate change

In the waning weeks of the North American hurricane season – a time when a superstorm is not expected to cause widespread damage to the eastern coast of the United States – Hurricane Sandy is a grim reminder of the menace of extreme weather events. With the lowest central pressure of the 2012 hurricane season, Sandy may have caused up to $20 billion in damages, making it one of the costliest superstorms in history.

Sandy interacted with a weather system moving toward it from the east, posing difficult challenges for forecasters and nearly unprecedented weather conditions for the region. A similar storm hit New England 20 years ago. But Sandy was worse, delivering hurricane-strength winds, drenching rains, and severe coastal flooding throughout the populous mid-Atlantic and northeast corridor.

…From the perspective of climate change, it is best to take a measured view of Sandy, lest hasty reaction harm scientific credibility…But that is little cause for comfort.

According to the giant insurance company Munich Re, weather and climate disasters contributed to more than one-third of a trillion dollars in damage worldwide in 2011, and this year’s total may rival that amount. There is growing evidence of links between climate change and sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts, and rainfall intensity, and, although scientific research on hurricanes and tornadoes is not as conclusive, that may be changing…

…Today, thanks to satellites, weather balloons, supercomputers, and skilled forecasters, we can anticipate hazardous weather up to a week in advance. Similar advances in climate modeling are occurring, thanks to methodological improvements and better data…

The world will need more cooperation in the coming years, as climate change begins to interact with and exacerbate extreme weather events, in order to gain the lead-time needed to prepare for disasters. We will also need the collaboration among governments, the private sector, and academia that often leads to improvements in forecasting…

We do not know whether superstorms like Sandy are harbingers of a “new normal” in the uneasy and unpredictable relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. That does not mean that there is not or cannot be such a connection, but rather that the scientific research needed to prove (or disprove) it must still be conducted. That is how good science works. Sandy has provided a powerful demonstration of the need to support it.

If politicians could get past ignorance, their anti-science habit, they might aid study and research simply by getting out of the way. Unfortunately, their opportunist lifestyle makes it easier to wallow in agitprop, fight against funding knowledge gathering and rely on spooky sloganeering for their endless election campaigns.

Fighting for understanding, trying to rebuild infrastructure that fits a changing world really shouldn’t require disaster and death to prompt reasonable concern from our elected officials.

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