During the endless news cycle of the election year, climate change appeared to be an afterthought in the American consciousness. The issue has been conspicuously absent in the run-up to the presidential election; it wasn’t so much as discussed during four broad-ranging televised debates. But with large portions of the Mid-Atlantic region underwater and without power, Hurricane Sandy is bringing climate change back into the public discourse. Of course, we can’t blame Sandy directly on climate change any more than we can cite global warming as the cause of any other single extreme weather event. But as ocean temperatures rise and hurricanes impact the Eastern Seaboard, we’re seeing an undeniable increase in the frequency and severity of devastating storms.
There are number of ways in which Hurricane Sandy forms a wildly unprecedented storm; even along the Gulf coast, late October tropical storms are—while not a rare occurrence—not an especially common one either. At any time of year, the Northeastern states are not particularly accustomed to named storms — and this is a second in two years. But the truly unusual feature of Hurricane Sandy is that it met with a winter storm, whipping up a larger, more power system. But how does this relate to climate change?
“There is observational evidence for an increase of intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, correlated with increases of tropical sea surface temperatures… Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs (sea surface temperatures)”
And these changes would appear to be taking place; this past July was, as was very widely reported, the hottest month in US recorded history, accompanied by the worst drought since 1956. Additionally, this past September was reported by the National Climate Data Center in their recent State of the Climate Report to be the second-warmest September ever for global sea surface temperature.
The EPA notes that increased surface temperatures are causing an increase in precipitation—an unevenly distributed one—which will cause some areas to experience stronger storms and hurricanes, while “shifting storm patterns will likely cause some areas to experience more severe droughts.”
Polls by Yale University have found that Americans’ increasingly accept climate change as a cause of extreme weather events—which perhaps adds to the absurdity of the absence of the topic from recent debates. And after two years of devastation across the country from hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and tornadoes, this most recent horrendous natural disaster is likely to further increase public awareness of climate change and its impact on a great number of communities. So while Hurricane Sandy is, by any standard, a highly unusual and rare storm, it does form another part in a long line of extreme events to which an increasing number of people are forced to adapt.
Photos by NOAA and Daniel C Sommer