Hurricane Sandy cannot be linked to single cause
December 11, 2012
According to a recent poll by the Siena Research Institute, 69 percent of New Yorkers believe global warming caused Hurricane Sandy. It is only natural that after such a catastrophe that people would like to blame a single cause for
their problems. To say that global warming directly caused Hurricane Sandy is an over-simplification that does not acknowledge other factors that affect the formation of storms. But scientific evidence suggests that the Earth’s warming climate increases the intensity of hurricanes, amplifying their destructive power. We need to learn from our experiences with Hurricane Sandy because the number of powerful storms will likely increase in the future.
Global warming is a term used to describe a rise in the Earth’s average temperature, and it should not be confused with daily weather patterns. In recent decades, rising global temperature has been attributed to the increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, traps infrared heat that warms Earth and its oceans. Warm surface temperatures fuel the intensity of hurricanes — the warmer the water, the more energy a storm absorbs. The intensity of Hurricane Sandy was likely a result of increased sea surface temperatures that are a feature of global warming.
Unlike most hurricanes, Sandy did not turn East and move into the Atlantic Ocean — instead, it turned West and slammed into the coastlines of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Why did Hurricane Sandy take this path? One potential reason is the dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice in recent years, another consequence of global warming. Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist, proposed that loss of sea ice creates an atmospheric pattern over Greenland that causes storms to turn and hit the East Coast instead.
Many New York City families, particularly those living closest to water, experienced the devastating effects of flooding. Global warming is also linked to the rise in sea levels, which is caused by the melting of land-based ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms. A Climate Center study found that for every inch of rising sea levels, an additional 6,000 people are flooded. Ben Strauss, director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, said New York harbor has seen a 15-inch rise in sea level since 1880, eight inches can be attributed to global warming.
It is unfair to blame an event like Hurricane Sandy on a single cause. But it is fair to say Earth’s changing climate is creating conditions — warmer oceans, rising sea levels and unusual weather patterns — that increase the likelihood of more intense and damaging hurricanes in coming years.
Despite the uncertainty, people must consider what is at stake. When New York City shuts down, the rest of America does as well. This hurricane had a devastating impact on our own community at NYU. Therefore, we need solutions. In his New York Times “Dot Earth” blog, Andrew Revkin explains that our folly in dealing with natural disasters is our “failure to learn from experience, an insistence on ‘rebuilding as before.’” Revkin refers to our inadequate infrastructure as an example. We need to improve our subway system to make it less prone to flooding. We also need a more reliable source of electrical power, using NYU’s Cogeneration Plant as a model. Finally, we need a creative solution to the widespread flooding that was experienced in Lower Manhattan. Without these improvements, New York will be hopeless in the face of another hurricane whose power and destruction is exacerbated by global warming. We must act now or risk drowning in the consequences of our inactions.
Benjamin Talarico, Rachel Pham and Michelle Parrott are contributing columnists. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.