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Preventing Future ‘Frankenstorms’

SOURCE: AP/Craig Ruttle

People, some waving to those on dry ground, are rescued by boat in Little Ferry, New Jersey, Tuesday, October 30, 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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Our thoughts and prayers are with the millions of Americans harmed by Hurricane Sandy. Its devastating winds, rains, and ocean surges caused a huge swath of destruction in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States before dumping vast quantities of snow in the Midwest. Sandy is responsible for at least 74 fatalities, and preliminary estimates indicate that it could cause $20 billion in property damage with only one-quarter to one-half covered by insurance. It may be one of the costliest U.S. hurricanes ever.

Unfortunately, Sandy is only the latest in a line of recent extreme weather events that have severely afflicted Americans in the past two years. Other disasters include the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, record-breaking temperatures across the nation, and severe thunderstorms and tornadoes across the Midwest. Farmers in the Midwest are expecting to harvest just a fraction of their corn and other crops this year, leading to record federal crop insurance payments due to the worst drought in 50 years that plagued two-thirds of the nation. Vicious heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and severe storms left hundreds of people dead and injured. These are the extreme weather events that scientists predict will become more frequent and/or severe if the industrial carbon pollution responsible for climate change remains unchecked.

Scientists and government agencies have documented the devastating extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that there were a record-high 14 weather events in 2011 that caused at least $1 billion each in damages. By our estimates there were at least seven additional events with more than $1 billion each in damages in 2012, with total combined damages from the two years topping $67 billion. In addition to these events, economists predict that the 2012 drought will cause between $28 billion and $77 billion in damages, potentially bringing the two-year damage total to $95 billion to $144 billion. During this time, all but five of the lower 48 states were affected by one or more of these events. (see table below)

Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurance firm, found that North America is experiencing a tremendous rise in extreme weather disasters—a nearly fivefold increase over the past three decades. It reported that, “There has been a 35 percent increase in the size of storms in the Gulf of Mexico since 1995.” It also concluded that this is due to climate change, and that this trend will continue in the future.

Climate science deniers are eager to claim that no single weather occurrence is definitely caused by climate change. Though that is technically correct, is is very misleading because scientists found that climate change does indeed affect our weather in clearly debilitating ways. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research notes that, “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

Indeed, scientists determined that there is a strong relationship between climate change and extreme weather. The Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in March 2012 the “Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,” which reinforced this connection. Scientists reviewed “over 1,000 scientific publications” to craft the report, and the panel warned of the “unprecedented extreme weather and climate events”:

  • Medium confidence [50 percent likelihood] in an observed increase in the length or number of warm spells or heat waves in many regions of the globe
  • Likely increase [66 percent likelihood] in frequency of heavy precipitation events or increase in proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls over many areas of the globe
  • Medium confidence in projected increase in duration and intensity of droughts in some regions of the world

Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University, one of the report’s authors, said during the heat wave this past summer that, “It’s really dramatic how many of the patterns that we’ve talked about as the expression of the extremes are hitting the U.S. right now.”

The Associated Press also reports that scientists are speaking out about the link between extreme weather and climate change:

“This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level,” said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

In fact, there are indications that Hurricane Sandy was more ferocious due to a warming climate. Treberth noted that the warming Atlantic Ocean surface temperature provides the optimal conditions “for a huge intense storm, enhanced by global warming influences.”

Moreover, Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specifically believes Sandy produced more rain due to warming waters:

With Sandy, a big factor is the coastal waters. For whatever reason, coastal waters are warmer than normal this year. That means that there is more water vapor in the atmosphere. Sandy will certainly produce more rain than if we didn’t have these warm waters near the shore.

And Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University, also noted that climate change increased the severity of Hurricane Sandy:

This is definitely the kind of thing we expect to see more of in the future. But in addition, while global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Sandy, it almost surely made the impact worse. And that’s because sea level has been rising in the last century due to global warming. … [Sandy] was pushing on a sea level, which was higher than it otherwise would have been, and it was able to push the water further and further inland.

This situation is only going to get worse over this century, over the coming years and decades because global warming will continue to cause sea level to rise and probably cause storms to become more intense until we reduce the emissions of the [greenhouse gases] that are causing the problem.

A quick poll by The Huffington Post/YouGov found that a majority of respondents agree that, “Changes in the global climate are related to more frequent and severe natural disasters.” Less than one-quarter of the respondents believe that this climate change is “unrelated to more frequent and severe natural disasters.”

Right now, the federal government must do everything it can to assist people harmed by Hurricane Sandy. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the carbon pollution added to the atmosphere responsible for climate change. The Obama administration took important steps to cut this pollution from motor vehicles, and the next president and Congress must slash carbon pollution from power plants, oil refineries, and other industrial sources. Such reductions will give the United States the standing to get other nations to reduce their pollution too.

After Hurricane Sandy and other recent weather disasters, we cannot afford any more warnings.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant for Energy Opportunity at the Center.

Thanks to Joseph Romm, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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