Quantcast

The Role Climate Change Plays in Mega-Storms

Climate

Union of Concerned Scientists

As Hurricane Sandy dissipates and recovery efforts begin, people are asking what role climate change plays in influencing such storms.

Oceans have absorbed much more of the excess heat from global warming than land and scientists understand that when hurricanes form, higher water temperatures can energize them and make them more powerful. Warming is also causing the atmosphere to hold more moisture and concentrate precipitation in stronger storms, including hurricanes. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, it retained much of its strength as it tracked across ocean water that was 9 degrees (F) warmer than average for this time of year.

However, the evidence is unclear when it comes to how frequently major late-season hurricanes such as Sandy may form in a warming world. Several factors, including differences in wind speed and direction, can break up hurricanes.

More broadly climate change is increasing sea levels globally, which affects all coastal storms, including hurricanes. Locally, sea level rise along the Mid-Atlantic and New England coasts has been among the highest in the world. Additionally, Hurricane Sandy made landfall during a full-moon high tide, which further drove storm surges that caused extensive coastal flooding. With continued warming, such high tides will become higher and more damaging.

“Human-caused climate change is delivering a one-two punch that is chipping away at our coasts,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Sea-level rise and more intense precipitation from a warmer, moister atmosphere make coastal storms more damaging.”

New York City, which has integrated aspects of climate change into its disaster-response planning, is currently grappling with flooded streets and subways. Ekwurzel said that climate change and aging infrastructures challenge many coastal cities.

“For the most part, our sewers, roads and transportation networks were built for our grandparents’ climate,” said Ekwurzel. “When it comes to climate change, city planners need to be our first responders.”

The link between extreme weather and climate change is the subject of much ongoing research. A special report on extreme weather from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released this summer concluded that coastal flooding and more extreme precipitation were strongly linked to human-induced climate change and are expected to get worse in the future. By contrast, scientists can have only “low confidence” when it comes to the historical link between hurricanes and climate change. In the future, the report said, it’s likely that heavy rainfalls associated with hurricanes will become more intense. Overall, hurricane strength—measured as wind speed—is likely to increase while the frequency of hurricane formation is likely to either remain unchanged or decrease.

UCS created an infographic that puts the report’s conclusions about weather extremes and climate change since 1950 in context.

The size of the circles relate to the strength of the evidence for the connections to climate change of observed extreme
events since 1950. Assessment based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change SREX report (2012).
Figure source: Union of Concerned Scientists.

Last year, UCS prepared a backgrounder on Hurricane Irene which broadly applies to Sandy, too. It covers global sea-level rise, increasing rainfall for hurricanes and the hard economic choices coastal communities face in a warming world.

Earlier this month, UCS released a letter from more than 120 city and county officials and scientists in Florida calling on the presidential candidates to discuss sea-level rise.

So, what role does climate change play in altering the characteristics and impacts of extreme weather and climate events? What approaches exist for reducing vulnerability and exposure and for managing impacts and disasters associated with extreme events? Scientists discuss the findings of a new international report that brings together, for the first time, expertise in climate science, disaster risk management and adaptation. Watch the video below:

 Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A glacier is seen in the Kenai Mountains on Sept. 6, near Primrose, Alaska. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying the glaciers in the area since 1966 and their studies show that the warming climate has resulted in sustained glacial mass loss as melting outpaced the accumulation of new snow and ice. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Mark Mancini

On Aug. 18, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. The deceased party was Okjökull, a historic body of ice that covered 14.6 square miles (38 square kilometers) in the Icelandic Highlands at the turn of the 20th century. But its glory days are long gone. In 2014, having dwindled to less than 1/15 its former size, Okjökull lost its status as an official glacier.

Read More Show Less
Members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America table at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18. Alex Schwartz

By Alex Schwartz

Among the many vendors at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18 sat three young people peddling neither organic vegetables, gourmet cheese nor handmade crafts. Instead, they offered liberation from capitalism.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
StephanieFrey / iStock / Getty Images

By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Muffins are a popular, sweet treat.

Read More Show Less
Hackney primary school students went to the Town Hall on May 24 in London after school to protest about the climate emergency. Jenny Matthews / In Pictures / Getty Images

By Caroline Hickman

Eco-anxiety is likely to affect more and more people as the climate destabilizes. Already, studies have found that 45 percent of children suffer lasting depression after surviving extreme weather and natural disasters. Some of that emotional turmoil must stem from confusion — why aren't adults doing more to stop climate change?

Read More Show Less
Myrtle warbler. Gillfoto / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bird watching in the U.S. may be a lot harder than it once was, since bird populations are dropping off in droves, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announces the co-founding of The Climate Pledge at the National Press Club on Sept. 19 in Washington, DC. Paul Morigi / Getty Images for Amazon

The day before over 1,500 Amazon.com employees planned a walkout to participate in today's global climate strike, CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a sweeping plan for the retail and media giant to be carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris agreement schedule.

Read More Show Less

By Winona LaDuke

For the past seven years, the Anishinaabe people have been facing the largest tar sands pipeline project in North America. We still are. In these dying moments of the fossil fuel industry, Water Protectors stand, prepared for yet another battle for the water, wild rice and future of all. We face Enbridge, the largest pipeline company in North America, and the third largest corporation in Canada. We face it unafraid and eyes wide open, for indeed we see the future.

Read More Show Less
The climate crisis often intensifies systems of oppression. Rieko Honma / Stone / Getty Images Plus

By Mara Dolan

We see the effects of the climate crisis all around us in hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and rising sea levels, but our proximity to these things, and how deeply our lives are changed by them, are not the same for everyone. Frontline groups have been leading the fight for environmental and climate justice for centuries and understand the critical connections between the climate crisis and racial justice, economic justice, migrant justice, and gender justice. Our personal experiences with climate change are shaped by our experiences with race, gender, and class, as the climate crisis often intensifies these systems of oppression.

Read More Show Less