26 october 2012

[For graphics and links to other sites, please consult the original article at Climate Science Watch]

Has climate change created a monster?

Posted October 26, 2012 by Jordan Nichols on Climate Science Watch

To adapt a famous quote on another subject: you may not be interested in climate change, but climate change is interested in you. While both presidential candidates and moderators of the debates have taken criticism for avoiding the subject of climate change, it may not be that easy for residents on the U.S. East Coast to avoid the effects of the "Frankenstorm" -- Hurricane Sandy.

I can see it now, a few decades in the future. It’s Halloween 2075 and a little girl walks up to a home in a Philadelphia suburb overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. She rings the doorbell, the door opens and the homeowner asks, “and what are you tonight little girl?” She shyly replies, “I’m a Frankenstorm.” Well that might be a little radical, but it’s not too far from the current path we’re on.

Hurricane Sandy is expected to merge with a strong cold front to the west creating what NOAA scientists are calling a “Frankenstorm,” a highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, union of forces that may create a monster of a storm. As the presidential campaigns are coming to a close, Hurricane Sandy rushes up the Atlantic Coast, along with its death toll. While both presidential candidates and moderators of the debates have taken criticism for avoiding the subject of climate change, I’m not sure it will be that easy for the residents on the coast to avoid the effects of this hurricane.

Indeed climate change does not wait for any mortal -- or election cycle for that matter. But you have to see the irony in this unfortunate series of events. As media and well-known activists call out the candidates for ducking climate change, it seems Mother Nature is sending us a message. It’s almost as if Mother Nature trying to tell us something, “you can ignore climate change all you want, but its not going away.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I am sure these climatic events would have occurred whether or not the current administration was talking about climate change, but it does seem odd. The trend of climate silence has coincided with unprecedented extreme weather in the United States during the last few years. As politicians and environmental groups strayed away from even speaking the words climate change, it has only gotten worse. Just two months after the Republican National Convention was postponed due to extreme weather, while they laughed at the thought of climate change, Sandy is set to make another splash.

I pray that this hurricane misses the United States and my home in Washington, DC, by a wide margin, saving billions of dollars in clean-up costs and sparing lives of innocent people caught in the storm’s path. But on the other side of that coin, some good might come out of such a disaster.

If Sandy makes landfall in some of the most densely populated areas in the United States, will the impending natural disaster spark talks about climate change? I often ask myself, “How bad does it have to get for people to start taking climate change seriously?” As Andrew Restuccia of Politico put it, “Is hurricane Sandy the next climate wake-up call?” If the drought, wildfires, heat, and Arctic ice melt of 2012 were not a sufficient wake-up call, then what will be? Maybe a massive hurricane would do the trick?

I know what you’re thinking: who says that Hurricane Sandy has anything to do with climate change? Before recently there wasn’t enough strong scientific evidence that global warming might increase the destructive power of hurricanes. It wasn’t until the 1970s that satellites were able to monitor tropical storms and hurricanes. Before the 70s many tropical storms and hurricanes were poorly recorded, monitored only by unlucky planes or ships crossing the storm’s path. The period of time from the late 1970s to the present simply didn’t provide enough data to form accurate trends based on global warming. That is now changing.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Aslak Grinsted of the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues devised a way around this time-lapse problem. Using data from storm surges, the “abnormal rise of water generated by a storm, over and above predicted astronomical tides,” Grinsted now had data from as far back as the 1920s. What did they find? “Using surges as an indicator we see an increase in all magnitudes of storms when ocean temperatures are warmer,” according to Michael D. Lemonick of Climate Central. But make no mistake, the storm surge data is not a perfect measurement because not all tropical storms and hurricanes make landfall.

The hurricane’s path is eerily similar to that of category 1 Hurricane Irene that drenched the majority of the U.S. eastern seaboard in August 2011 and left behind a trail of damage. Irene had a profound impact on the East Coast, killing 56 people in 10 states and costing roughly 7 billion dollars in cleanup costs.

What’s so unusual about Sandy and the timing of this hurricane? This late in the Hurricane season, by late October, the storm systems that materialize around the Caribbean usually move eastward away from the United States. Since Wednesday October 24, weather models have attempted to make sense of the predicted track of Sandy, but struggle because very little precedent exists in modern observations to drawn upon.

Andrew Freedman at Climate Central had this to say about Sandy: “Normally, hurricanes that form in Sandy’s location do head seaward, particularly in October, when strong cold fronts moving off the East Coast tend to sweep tropical weather systems away from the mainland. In fact, there may only have been a couple of cases in the historical record dating back to the 19th century when a hurricane took a track in October similar to the one Sandy may ultimately follow.”

So what has experts sounding the alarm on Hurricane Sandy, saying likely to be worse than 1991 “perfect storm?” An intense high-pressure system, unusual for this time of year, has formed over Greenland and much of Canada that will act as a “blocking high”, preventing the hurricane from moving in a typical trajectory away from the United States. Instead, this pressure disparity will most likely pull the storm system back toward New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania and as far into the mainland as Ohio.

Is this high pressure related to the unprecedented Arctic ice melting experienced this summer? Many scientists agree that increased melting of Arctic sea ice has allowed the sun’s energy to warm the oceans in the north a great deal. Others speculate the warming seas have altered the delicate balance of energy in the north, shifting weather patterns around the world. This exact complex relationship is still under scrutiny by scientists around the world.

If this supercharged “Frankenstorm” were to continue on its likely trajectory, the latest sets of computer models expect severe impacts. Sandy, likely to be a “billion dollar disaster…will bring sustained winds of 50 - 60 mph with gusts over hurricane force to a large section of coast,” according to Dr. Jeff Masters at Weather Underground. He also added that, “If Sandy hits Long Island, as the GFS model predicts, the storm surge will be capable of over-topping the flood walls in Manhattan and flooding portions of the New York City subway system.”

It’s hard to believe what has gotten lost in all this extreme weather talk: the crucial need for climate preparedness. Our climate is changing; this is now more painfully obvious than ever. Recent studies suggest that the majority of the coasts in the United States are vulnerable to rising seas due to climate change. The signs and warnings are very clear, but there is no sense of urgency to prepare for our impending climate 50 years from now. The United States has fallen behind on this front, while other countries are planning for the future.

Building cities to standards that will be obsolete in the next few decades is a gross waste of resources. Coastal areas where homes and office buildings reside could be washed away, yet little is being done to plan ahead. Projected sea level rise in the next century will ultimately lay waste to entire urban areas in coastal regions. Preventive action, based on sound scientific data, must be championed soon to save our coastal communities. The seas will rise, whether we believe in climate change or not, so we must adapt and prepare. What we need is political leadership to start talking about climate change again, no matter whether it’s an election year or not. Time is running out on preventive action, while the “Frankenstorm” draws nearer.

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