The question, “Is Hurricane Sandy a sign of climate change?” has a familiar refrain: isolated, single events cannot be tied to the climate, because climate is a region’s typical, average weather over time.
But Sandy has forced the hand of those who are dealing with its aftermath. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both pragmatic leaders, have stated that it is time to address climate change. Both acknowledged that making ideological arguments and parsing terms does nothing to help with the real, on-the-ground crisis of a paralyzed metro area.
This August, NASA scientist James Hansen published a report that statistically analyzed temperatures during the past 60 years. Prior to the 1980s, the chance of extreme weather events occurring was one in 300. Now it is closer to one in 10. Rather than ask, “Is this climate change?” Hansen asks, “How likely is this to have occurred with the absence of global warming? The answer is extraordinarily unlikely.”
The insurance industry agreed; in an October report issued by the German company Munich Re, it documented that weather catastrophes in North America have increased from 60 a year in 1980 to nearly 300 in recent years.
In Virginia, we were spared the full force of the storm. But we still need to heed its lesson. We have entered a new era of extreme weather, and we need to know that pollution from factories, vehicle emissions and from landfills and feedlot meat production practices have contributed to global warming. We are responsible for the changes we are seeing in our weather. We need to own up to this storm.
Like a typical hurricane, Sandy worked its way through the Caribbean. As it came up the East Coast, it combined with a nor’easter and made landfall in the New Jersey/New York area. As it traveled inland, it collided with a cold front that dumped snow and became a blizzard in West Virginia. Sandy’s impacts were felt as far west as Cleveland, which suffered power outages from wind gusts. Fewer workers were available to repair downed lines, because crews had been dispatched to help storm victims on the East Coast.
This hybrid nature of Sandy is atypical and what made it “Frankenstorm.” Just as Frankenstein was brought to life by a mad scientist’s tinkering, warm temperatures have tweaked our jet stream and made its predictable course go haywire. Waters in the Atlantic off the northeastern U.S. were up to 5 degrees higher than average. Warm coastal waters kept Sandy strong as it traveled north. Higher temperatures result in greater rainfall.
Flooding was especially bad because the sea level has risen during the last century due to record-breaking polar ice melts. When storm surges hit, especially with full-moon high tides, as in Sandy’s case, the flooding is severe. Buildings, whose placement was unproblematic 50 years ago, are damaged today.
The damages Sandy incurred are staggering: 110 lives lost, tens of thousands displaced people, widespread power outages, loss of productivity and $300 million in damages. Repairing and rebuilding will occupy the region for years to come.
Sandy is consistent with what scientists have been telling us we should expect. They have cautioned us for years. Unprecedented storms, such as Sandy, will become the new normal until we bring our climate into balance by curbing our emissions. Reducing our use of coal, oil and natural gas is necessary. Renewable energy — solar, wind and geothermal — are increasingly attractive options in our journey towards returning to climate stability.
It is time for policies that enable us to make the transition to renewable energy. A fair tax on carbon is a great place to start in the new Congress.