Frankenstorm Sandy: Has Climate Change Bred a Monster?

Opinions are spinning almost as fast as the storm’s winds.

Hurricane Sandy
High tide floods a street near Milford, Connecticut—and Hurricane Sandy hasn’t even arrived yet. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

It used to be that if you wanted a safe topic, one that was sure not to offend anyone, you’d talk about the weather. Not anymore. As we reported earlier this month, there’s been a constant debate in environmental and scientific circles about whether or not global warming is causing more hurricanes.

Now, with Hurricane Sandy, the so-called “Frankenstorm” in the news, the debate is raging once again. And while we noted previously that scientists from the Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University had found support for the idea that global warming was indeed causing more-frequent and destructive hurricanes, opinions still vary widely.

NPR has discussed what they call “a hierarchy of weather events,” meaning that scientists generally feel pretty comfortable establishing climate-change links when it comes to global temperature rises and extreme heat, but not so much when it comes to hurricanes.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated, “There is low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity (i.e., intensity, frequency, duration), after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities.”

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In other words, there’s not a lot of strong, reliable data for scientists to fall back on, and they don’t have the tools that would allow them to come to definitive conclusions. And while all the attention being focused on Hurricane Sandy and its potential to wreak havoc along the entire East Coast may make it seem like storms are getting more powerful, there’s a lot more natural variability over decades and centuries than can be accounted for by any one event.

To make matters even more confusing, MIT meteorologist Kerry Emanuel has observed that ocean surface temperatures in the tropical waters where hurricanes and typhoons form has increased by almost one degree Fahrenheit in the past century, and higher sea surface temperatures are likely to lead to more powerful and destructive hurricanes.

But, Emanuel has also pointed out that a warming atmosphere will probably reduce the number of less powerful storms. 

So when it comes to the Frankenstorm, we may be wise to note what Andrew Revkin wrote in his New York Times Dot Earth blog. He referenced one of his own stories from 10 years ago that began with the following: “Four times since the last ice age, at intervals roughly 3,000 years apart, the Northeast has been struck by cycles of storms far more powerful than any in recent times, according to a new study. The region appears to have entered a fifth era in which such superstorms are more likely.”

Oh, and take my advice—don’t talk about the weather at your next dinner party.

Do you think Hurricane Sandy is an isolated incident, or more proof that climate change is causing stronger storms? Leave your conclusions in COMMENTS.

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