Although 24/7 broadcast coverage of Hurricane Sandy barely hinted at the climate change elephant in the room, and while the two leading presidential candidates continued to avoid the topic, those in Sandy’s path were more adamant about the need to confront global warming.
“There’s no such thing as a 100-year flood. These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in an interview. Cuomo has recently suggested the state might need to start constructing storm barriers to guard against the sea level scientists are predicting will rise two feet by 2050.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy echoed the unprecedented nature of the hurricane in another way: "The last time we saw anything like this was - never."
It's important to note here that it’s difficult to blame some individual weather events -- particularly hurricanes -- on climate change. EarthShare member The Union of Concerned Scientists created this handy infographic to show which weather events have the strongest connection. Hurricanes are on the low end of the spectrum:
Even so, Sandy’s record-breaking run -- largest Atlantic hurricane on record at 1000-miles across, highest-ever storm surge in Battery Park, most widespread power outages and public transit impacts, combined with the growing frequency of other extreme weather events and the almost textbook predictions of climate scientists fulfilled -- has led many to call this a global warming-fueled storm.
“In a nutshell, global warming heats up our oceans and loads hurricanes and other storms with extra energy, making them more violent,” says Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an EarthShare member organization. “Global warming also leads to rising sea levels, which boosts storm surges, and in turn lead to more severe flooding. Sea levels stretching from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia are rising four times as fast as the global average, making the region more vulnerable to flooding.”
Jeremy Syomons at the National Wildlife Federation, also an EarthShare member group, points to the source of this warming: “The near-record warmth of the Atlantic waters that spawned the storm is the new normal, thanks to the warming caused by one trillion tons of carbon pollution that has been dumped in our atmosphere from burning oil, coal and gas.”
The question of how big or damaging Sandy might have been without climate change is difficult to answer, but there’s one thing 98% of climate scientists unequivocally agree on: extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy will become more frequent in the coming years. The once-in-a-lifetime storm is sure to become a regular occurrence in years ahead.
In 2012 alone, the US experienced the warmest year on record (so far); wildfires burned more than a million acres in the West; a severe drought impacted over half of the country; violent, heat-fueled “Derecho” storms tore through the Ohio Valley and mid-Atlantic; and Arctic ice melted to its lowest extent ever.
These indications make it imperative that citizens and leaders begin to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate change by making their cities more resilient. You can make a difference by starting that conversation in your own community and asking the climate question, even (and especially) when no one else is willing to do so!
For more information on the work that EarthShare member groups are doing to address global warming, visit our Climate Change & Energy page. Also check out World Resources Institute’s timeline of 2012 extreme weather events.