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Is Hurricane Sandy a Link to Global Warming?

Nov 02, 2012

Credit: mrpbps, CC BY 2.0

Hurricane Sandy swept over eastern U.S. cities earlier this week, leaving extensive infrastructure and coastline damage and a still rising death toll while affecting millions of lives still in the weeks to come. Reports probing into the storm's connection to global warming are inevitably starting to surface. So did climate change spur the superstorm?

Meteorologists classify Hurricane Sandy as a superstorm (a hybrid of storms), the largest tropical storm in the Atlantic that swept from the Caribbean to the U.S. The peak of the storm produced wind gusts reaching 90 mph in New York City, according to the National Hurricane Center. Because Hurricane Sandy was unlike any recent Northeastern hurricane on record, climate experts are looking into the root cause of such a weather extreme.

While addressing the damage in Sandy's aftermath, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that he believes that extreme weather situations are tied to climate change. "I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable," he said during a press conference.

Meteorologists and scientists continue to field questions about the link between climate change and superstorms. Some climate experts contend that a global warming connection to one specific storm, such as Sandy, is not clear, noting that the storm's extreme weather characteristics may have been a string of untimely coincidences and that there are too many variables to consider. Yet scientific findings indicate that certain types of weather extremes linked to warmer weather conditions may be a regular trend.

One report, titled "Homogeneous record of Atlantic hurricane surge threat since 1923," published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, reveals the "largest cyclones are most affected by warmer conditions." Furthermore, there has been a significant trend in the frequency of large surge events since 1923, according to the report's summary.

Warmer water climates, which experts say is a variable in storm intensity, have been recorded this year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) reported that during the first half of the year, the sea surface temperature in the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem was the highest on record, captured by measurement tools including contemporary satellites remote sensing data and long-term shipboard measurements.

Scientific American emphasizes how Arctic sea ice melts, which is tied to global warming, can ultimately affect the shift in the jet stream flows and change the direction of a storm.

Additionally, rising sea levels, which have increased by 8 inches over the past century, can make storm surges worse, according to a Reuters report. To that end, a separate report released earlier this year indicates that the sea level in the Atlantic coast is rising four times faster than the global average.

For the most part, scientists and meteorologists are taking a cautious approach to linking climate change's role to the latest superstorm, stating that a long-term study is needed. Yet science does tell us that warmer temperatures are connected with more intense weather systems.