Sandy and The Noise of Science

Flooded homes in Tuckerton, N.J., on Oct. 30 after Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline on Oct. 29. (US Coast Guard via AFP/Getty Images). Retrieved from boston.com.

Well.  That did not take long.  The desire to blame Hurricane Sandy and its damage on something simple.  Climate change, of course, starts to get prominent airtime again.

There is a lot of noise about a once-in-a-whatever, unprecedented, never-seen-anything-like-this storm.  It is exceptionally rare, true.  Statisticians and meteorologists may disagree, but for my money, this is a storm that only happens a few times a century somewhere on the East Coast.  For New York City and the New Jersey shore, I would argue this happens, statistically, once, maybe twice in a hundred years.

The atmospheric conditions that came together do not happen often, but they do happen. Dr. Jeff Masters has a good summation of the atmospheric setup.

While the damage is truly catastrophic, we must be reminded to consult history books. Individual memories are short and fleeting.

Go back and think about the development along the New Jersey Shore, Long Island, and Manhattan since Hurricane Donna brought an 11-foot tide to New York City in 1960.  

Then, go back to the Long Island Express, the nickname of the 1938 Category 3 hurricane, that knocked out power to all of the Bronx and the northern half of Manhattan… even though the eye crossed Long Island 75 miles east of the city.

Then, go back to 1821.  That’s when the East River converged with the Hudson River over lower Manhattan.  Of course, two centuries ago, there were fewer people, fewer homes, no electrical lines, no subway system.  How much structural damage could there possibly be?

Masters also sums up the climate change issue well in that post.  No one weather event can be attributed to climate change.  But it does force climate scientists and meteorologists to look at atmospheric flow patterns more closely.

Very preliminary research suggests that a warming Arctic may lead to more atmospheric blocking patterns, such as the negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation.  Blocking patterns lead to unusual storm tracks, both in direction and/or speed.  But, blocking in the North Atlantic was only one of the factors involved in Sandy’s unusual structure and track.

I met The Weather Channel’s Stu Ostro at a conference in Denver in 2009, and he was the first person I had seen attempt to make a connection between atmospheric blocking and climate change.  The volume of research he presented was impressive, and it continues to grow.  Others have followed suit.

One of the most prominent and well-respected public faces of meteorology, Jim Cantore, also alluded to Ostro’s research on Late Night with David Letterman the night after the floods hit Manhattan. Lest you think Cantore was putting on a show, below is a twitter exchange with his former colleague, Dr. Heidi Cullen:

@HeidiCullen ‏Nice #Sandy blocking explainer by @JimCantore with a shout out to@StuOstro on Letterman: http://wxch.nl/Y0jfIQ  #climate 11:48 AM – 31 Oct 12 

@JimCantore ‏@HeidiCullen time for the world to except [sic] this Doc. 11:56 AM – 31 Oct 12 

There are other oceanic and atmospheric patterns at play as well.  The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, the Madden-Julian Oscillation.  All have some role.  The atmosphere is a large place that is well-connected.

Certainly, blocking has happened in the past, and will continue in the future, regardless of any human involvement.  So to reiterate the point above, it is simply not accurate to blame Sandy, or any single particular event on climate change.  What we have witnessed is not a sudden jump to a new normal.

But to be sure, the Arctic is warming… more rapidly than at any time in the history of human civilization.  We have started a long-term experiment with the composition of the atmosphere.  History will tell us how big of a mark Sandy was in this experiment.

***

Update. 6:00pm, Thursday, November 1.

Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr. expands on the above idea, going through the hurricane history books further, adjusting the damage numbers for inflation, and reminding us that where we live matters.

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About seansublette

Meteorologist at Climate Central. Broadcast meteorologist in Virginia from 1995 to 2015. Born and raised in Richmond, VA. Penn State alumnus. Loves baseball and the rock band Rush. Views are independent of my employer. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
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