Hurricane Sandy: Global warming fuels a perfect Frankenstorm

  • Published on October 29th, 2012

hurricane sandy bears down on the east coast, fueled by warming oceans

By Bill McKibben

Sandy, the hurricane that appears set to pummel the East Coast, promises a historic potential for damage and a terrifying look at what may be in store for us in a post-climate change world — ever more frequent assaults of not-so-natural origin.

Watching Sandy on her careening path toward the Eastern Seaboard scares me more than it would have 15 months ago. That’s because my home state took the brunt of Irene, last year’s “sprawling,” “surly,” “record-breaking” Atlantic storm. I know now exactly how much power a warm sea can contain and how far that pain can spread.

And in the process, feeling that fear, I begin to sense what the future may be like, as more and more of the world finds itself facing ever-more-frequent assaults from the amped-up forces of the not-so-natural world.

You can’t, as the climate-change deniers love to say, blame any particular hurricane on global warming. They’re born, as they always have been, when a tropical wave launches off the African coast and heads out into the open ocean. But when that ocean is hot—and at the moment sea surface temperatures off the Northeast are five degrees higher than normal—a storm like Sandy can lurch north longer and stronger, drawing huge quantities of moisture into its clouds, and then dumping them ashore.

Last year that dumping happened across Vermont. In some places we broke absolutely every rainfall record. It turned our streams and rivers into cataracts that took out 500 miles of state highway. A dozen towns were left completely cut off from the rest of the world, relying on helicopters to drop food. I know the odds are slim that we’ll find ourselves in the bull’s-eye again. But someone will.

This time the great damage may be along the coast. Even as we’ve built up our coastal populations, sea level has begun to climb. There are already cities along the coast that flood easily at the month’s high tide. This storm may hit when the moon is full, and it may dump so much rain that the water will be coming from both directions. Or maybe across the Appalachian highlands will be where it does its biggest damage, mixing with an inland storm front to dump snow on forests still in leaf. But someplace is going to take it on the chin, maybe harder than it ever has before.

And that’s the world we live in now. James Hansen, the NASA climatologist, published a paper earlier this year showing how the seemingly small one degree we’ve already warmed the earth has made extreme weather far more likely. The insurance industry has published a series of warnings in recent years saying the same thing. The world grows steadily more unpredictable, and hence we grow less comfortable in it.

You see the same thing on much smaller scales. In Vermont this fall we had our first deaths ever from Eastern equine encephalitis, a mosquito-borne disease that the experts had predicted would come with a warming climate. They were right, and now when you go out to weed the garden, the dusk carries with it a slight whiff of apprehension it never did before.

Our relationship to the world around us is shifting as fast as that world is shifting. “Frankenstorm” is the right name for Sandy, and indeed for many other storms and droughts and heat waves now. They’re stitched together from some spooky combination of the natural and the unnatural. Some state will doubtless bear the brunt of this particular monster, but it also will do its damage to everyone’s state of mind.

Bill McKibben is the founder of climate change activism group, and the author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

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  • Please identify and explain all of the natural factors that produced hurricane Hazel in 1954. Hazel was a Cat 3 October hurricane that hit the east coast, during a full moon and combined with a cold front to cause flooding well into Canada.
    Now please identify and explain all of the man made factors that produced hurricane Sandy in 2012. Sandy was a Cat 1 October hurricane that hit the east coast, during a full moon and combined with a cold front.
    Please also explain all of the east coast hurricanes from 1954 to 1960. Cat 3 Carol, Cat 3 Edna, Cat 3 Hazel, Cat 3 Connie, Cat 1 Diane and Cat 3 Donna.

    • One more time:
      Climate change didn’t magically transform the world so that suddenly we had hurricanes where we had none before. That’s stupid.
      But Hurricanes are driven by HEAT. That’s what fuels them, gives them energy, and builds them from cat 1 to cat 5. Heat. Energy.
      The more heat you have, the more energy, the bigger the hurricanes.
      You have record heat in the Atlantic Ocean, like we did this year, you’re going to get record storms – like we did this year.
      Clear enough?

      • No, it is not merely heat. A differential temperature is needed to permit heat to flow. Last I saw, the anthropogenic warming belief promoters were claiming that the extra (with anthropogenic cause) heat is being seen at the polls, which would mean a reduced differential temperature. Besides, what makes this storm any different or unusual, compared with storms in the past?

        • If you have read ANYTHING about this, you should know that Hurricane Sandy was head and shoulders above a “normal” storm. We’ve NEVER seen anything like it (and spare me the “Oh, other storms were just as devastating – JUST NOT TRUE.)
          As for heat – yes, it’s the MOVEMENT of heat, caused by differentials, that causes weather. Part of what made Sandy so devastating was that yes, the large amount of extra heat in the Arctic Ocean messed up weather patterns in the North Atlantic. NORMALLY when a hurricane develops this late in the season, it goes harmlessly out to sea. Instead, high-pressure ridges related to that Arctic weather mess pushed Sandy straight in to shore.

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