Superstorm Sandy And Global Warming

Did climate change influence the power and impact of Hurricane Sandy?

Of course, that’s the $60-plus billion question, and Jeff Masters at Wunderground is just the meteorologist to dig into the answer.

Here’s his very detailed and well-organized answer, in which he concludes:

Global warming theory (Emanuel, 2005) predicts that a 2°C (3.6°F) increase in ocean temperatures should cause an increase in the peak winds of the strongest hurricanes of about about 10%. Furthermore, warmer ocean temperatures are expected to cause hurricanes to dump 20% more rain in their cores by the year 2100, according to computer modeling studies (Knutson et al., 2010). However, there has been no published work describing how hurricane size may change with warmer oceans in a future climate. We’ve seen an unusual number of Atlantic hurricanes with large size in recent years, but we currently have no theoretical or computer modeling simulations that can explain why this is so, or if we might see more storms like this in the future. However, we’ve seen significant and unprecedented changes to our atmosphere in recent decades, due to our emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. The laws of physics demand that the atmosphere must respond. Atmospheric circulation patterns that control extreme weather events must change, and we should expect extreme storms to change in character, frequency, and intensity as a result–and not always in the ways our computer models may predict. We have pushed our climate system to a fundamentally new, higher-energy state where more heat and moisture is available to power stronger storms, and we should be concerned about the possibility that Hurricane Sandy’s freak size and power were partially due to human-caused climate change.

It seems self-evident that if we change the climate we change the weather. But apparently this point can’t be made enough given the resistance out thereto this reality and its implications.

Non-trivial digression: One other thing caught my attention in this analysis. According to Masters…

Most incredibly, ten hours before landfall (9:30 am EDT October 30), the total energy of Sandy’s winds of tropical storm-force and higher peaked at 329 Terra Joules–the highest value for any Atlantic hurricane since at least 1969. This is 2.7 times higher than Katrina’s peak energy, and is equivalent to five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

All that energy was equivalent to just five World War II era atomic bombs? That says a lot, not about the power of Sandy, but about the power of nuclear weapons. Today we are used to living with thousands of nuclear weapons (in other words, hundreds of potential Sandys), and the possibility of a nuclear exchange, say, between India and Pakistan. But Sandy is a reminder that we should not be at all casual about this danger. And that efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons should be a top priority for all of us.

History Matters: The Cuban Missile Crisis

Fascinating review of what happened, by Dino Brugioni, the CIA Analyst who first spotted the missile sites in reconnaissance photos.

This was probably the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. Hope that remains the case.

How Many Nukes Can A Nuke-State Need?

On Sunday, the New York Times coughed up an editorial that is hard to argue with. It said that in the post-Cold War era we do not need thousands of nuclear weapons, and urged cuts so the money could be spent elsewhere:

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. It should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs.

Calling for this sort of practical thinking about nuclear weapons touches on a bigger issue: the United States remains in the throes of a Cold War mentality that elevates military power high above its practical benefits. Consider the trillions of dollars spent on the military over the past two decades, consider the wars and interventions we are so quick to throw our military power into, and ask whether we are better off having invested the money that way, or whether we would be better off having invested that money in education, infrastructure and energy technology.

The future will be won, and America will lead or fail in the 21st century, based on making the most of investing the limited resources we have. Military power is the wrong tool for the wrong battle. The 20th century was dominated by military balances. The 21st century will be dominated by economic and environmental balances. We need to be smarter, better educated, and more productive. So our cowboy love of military power, our stubborn obeisance to the military-industrial lobby, is a key mindset that has to be changed. I’m not arguing for no military power. I’m arguing for a lot less military power, based on a hard-nosed, cost-benefit approach to deciding where we should spend money.

A good example of a movement–referenced in the NYT editorial– that is calling for exactly this sort of radical change, is Global Zero, which is making the case for eliminating nuclear weapons. It’s not just some crazy liberal fantasy. Global Zero has the support of George Schultz, James Baker and a battalion of retired military officers. Thankfully, though, they have chosen Naomi Watts and Valerie Plame Wilson to help make the case:

Reinventing our nuclear doctrine is just one part of reinventing our national security strategy to address economic competition and climate change, among other challenges. But it would be a great start.