Putting Hurricane Sandy into context

By Nadine Lymn, ESA director of public affairs

As the reports began coming in about the approaching “superstorm” known as Hurricane Sandy, the chatter about how and if it was connected to global warming was not far behind.  Indeed, it seemed that in the days following its devastating coastal landfall, attention on climate change was revived.

In his Bloomberg view editorial, the New York mayor wrote that “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

On Discovery News, Larry O’Hanlon didn’t mince words: “Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? Absolutely not. Did climate change have anything to do with Sandy being as bad as it was? Absolutely so, say scientist bloggers whose bread and butter is understanding the physics of our atmosphere.”

Over at Climate Central, Andrew Freedman wrote an illuminating piece on Hurricane Sandy noting that “If this were a criminal case, detectives would be treating global warming as a likely accomplice in the crime.” In his article, Freedman noted that the most damaging aspect of the hurricane was the storm surge.

A US Geological Survey study published in Nature Climate Change this past summer focused on the risks that rising sea levels pose to the US Atlantic coast, including major cities such as New York, Boston, Baltimore and Norfolk.  The study found that sea level is rising up to four times faster than the global average along the 1,000 kilometer (620 mile) coastline stretching from north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina up to north of Boston, Massachusetts.  The USGS researchers found that since about 1990, sea level along this so-called “hotspot” of coastline has risen by two to 3.7 millimeters per year, compared with a global rise of between 0.6 and one millimeter per year over the same time period.

In a USGS press release about the study, Asbury (Abby) Sallenger, USGS oceanographer and project lead said that “Ongoing accelerated sea level rise in the hotspot will make coastal cities and surrounding areas increasingly vulnerable to flooding by adding to the height that storm surge and breaking waves reach on the coast.”

The NASA images below show the shoreline of Mantoloking, New Jersey before and after Hurricane Sandy.







A 2009 US Global Change Research report included a focus on the nation’s coastal areas and addressed both sea level rise as well as warming sea surface temperatures and their potential to add to the strength of hurricanes:

“A warming climate will cause further sea-level rise over this century and beyond. Rising sea level is already eroding shorelines, drowning wetlands, and threatening homes, businesses, and infrastructure. The destructive potential of Atlantic hurricanes has increased in recent decades in association with increasing sea surface temperatures.”

The destruction wrought by Sandy underscores the vulnerability of our coastal areas, many of them heavily populated.

To view USGS pre and post photos of Sandy’s impact on the Atlantic coast, ranging from North Carolina to Massachusetts, click here.

 Top photo: Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast on October 29, 2012, GOES satellite image, NASA

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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