Hurricane Sandy's rampage over the United States
highlighted the power of nature. Shaye Wolf, a climate
science director at the Centre for Biological Diversity,
warns global warming is cranking up three key factors that
increase the risk of superstorms.
A sign with a photo nailed to one of several pilings, all
that remains of a house that once stood on this beachfront
property in Bay Head, New Jersey, in the aftermath of
Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Reuters.
It was the day the ocean came ashore. As Hurricane Sandy
lurched into the East Coast of the United States last week, we
watched in horror as floodwaters crippled Manhattan and
inundated more than 70% of Atlantic City.
This Frankenstorm has given us a hair-raising look at the
power of nature, and the harm and heartbreak it can inflict.
But as a scientist, I think it's critical to understand these
disasters are becoming more unnatural. The terrifying truth
is we face a future full of Frankenstorms because of man-made
We've always had hurricanes, of course, but powerful
scientific evidence shows superstorms are being fed by a
climate change triple whammy. Global warming, it turns out,
is cranking up three key factors that increase the United
States' risk of superstorms and the damage they cause. First,
global warming loads storms with more energy and more
rainfall. A new study in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences found Katrina-magnitude Atlantic
hurricanes have been twice as likely in warm years compared
with cold years.
That's because hotter ocean temperatures add energy to storms
and warmer air holds more moisture, causing storms to dump
And global ocean temperatures hit their second-highest level
on record in September, according to the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. Second, melting sea ice and
accelerating Arctic warming are causing changes in the jet
stream that have been connected to more extreme weather in
the US. Essentially, climate change in the Arctic is altering
the jet stream, causing bursts of colder air to drop down
further into the US. In Sandy's case, a collision with a cold
front acted to turn the hurricane into a superstorm.
Recent research, including studies by experts at the Georgia
Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, has linked
Arctic warming to increased risk of a variety of extreme
weather events. Arctic sea ice, by the way, hit a record low
this northern summer.
Finally - and most urgently - storm surges are rising on top
of higher sea levels, so more coastline floods during storms.
That's critical because storm surge is often far more
damaging than high winds, and because more than half of all
Americans live within 80km of the coast.
Why are seas rising?
Climate change is the driving force. In the northeastern
United States, sea levels are rising three to four times
faster than the global average, putting major US cities at
increased risk of flooding, according to a recent study in
Nature Climate Change. What can we do?
The bottom line: We have to reduce carbon emissions - and
quickly. When it comes to climate change, we've been acting
like the proverbial man with the leaky roof.
When it's raining, we're too focused on the weather to fix
And when the storm moves on, so does our attention.
But kicking this problem down the road is no longer an
option. A recent report from the highly respected
International Energy Agency made it clear we are running out
of time to cut carbon pollution and avert climate change's
Hurricane Sandy underscores the risks we face. This problem
can be solved, but only if we treat global warming like the
emergency it truly is.