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.