Superstorm Sandy and Climate Change

by Orpheus Reed | November 1, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


Hurricane Sandy was an immensely destructive and massive storm. Satellite photos of Sandy from space showed it stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes. Sandy's tropical force winds spread over 940 miles, more than twice as far as Hurricane Katrina, although its sustained winds were 30 miles per hour less than Katrina's. According to Mark Fischetti of Scientific American online, Sandy was the "largest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions." Sandy was also the second most powerful hurricane in recorded history north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Its huge size and strength created massive flooding by rainfall and the most destructive storm surges seen along the East Coast perhaps in centuries.

Sandy--Another "Wake-up" Moment

Sandy has hit at a moment when the climate of the earth is undergoing big change. One of the most dramatic changes is the increase of extreme weather events, including more destructive and massive storms like Sandy. More of these extreme weather events are now occurring because of the warming of the earth that is transforming the earth's climate. Scientists have predicted for a number of years that climate change will result in more extreme and destructive storms, flooding, heat waves, drought, etc. And there is increasing scientific evidence demonstrating that the planet is already experiencing more extreme weather. (See "Climate Change: The Heat Wave, Extreme Weather and Future Storms," Revolution #280, September 16, 2012.)

As Sandy was hitting, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben called for people to "reflect about what it means that in the warmest year in U.S. history, when we've seen the warmest month, July, of any month in a year in U.S. history, in a year when we saw, essentially, summer sea ice in the Arctic just vanish before our eyes, what it means that we're now seeing storms of this unprecedented magnitude. If there was ever a wake-up call, this is it." (Democracy Now!, October 29, 2012)

But instead of raising such an alarm, powerful sections of the ruling class and much of the mass media have been mostly silent about or even deny any connection to climate change.

What is needed is to deeply learn about the dynamics of this superstorm, spread the science about climate change, and move to mobilize people to confront and if possible work to reverse the environmental changes that are wrecking the planet and harming life.

There have been some good and valuable pieces written by scientists, environmentalists, and scientific writers raising the alarm and digging into the factors behind Hurricane Sandy (see sources below). But the only discussion of climate change in most of the mainstream press has been limited to how the U.S. should cope with the inevitable rise of the oceans and a more destructive future by possibly building floodgates and other devices to make sure New York is better protected.

This is one question, but there is a much larger worldwide reality and problem. There are the immense transformations from climate change to come, in terms of loss of species and whole ecosystems, the acidification of the oceans, and the potential unraveling of the natural world. And the rise of the seas already happening and which will get much worse, and the more destructive and powerful storms that are also already happening and which also will get much worse will deeply impact hundreds of millions of people all over our planet. Whole island nations and potentially whole countries such as Bangladesh can be lost in this process. Tens of millions of people all over the planet live on coastlines at elevations in the same range as, or even lower than, New York City. And many of these tens of millions live in poor countries that are oppressed by imperialism. There will be no floodgates built for them.

How is all of that going to be reckoned with? Nothing short of dramatically, quickly, and massively cutting the burning of fossil fuels, converting to renewable and sustainable energy, and then preserving nature and allowing the earth to come back over many centuries is what is needed. But to do that, we need a revolution and a whole new system.

Sandy's Dynamics

Given this reality and the stakes, it's important to look at the relationship of this storm to climate change so we can get into all of this with people.

Hurricanes are not themselves formed because of human-caused global warming. They occur naturally through a complex of factors (which is beyond the scope of what we can get into here), and throughout history there has been a great deal of natural variation in the power and size of hurricanes.

It's not really that unusual for hurricanes to happen in October or to go up along the Atlantic coast. What was unusual here was that Sandy became such a massive and powerful hurricane, merging with a big, colder storm that was pulled down from the north by a dip in the jet stream, creating a super hybrid storm. Many hurricanes that go up the coast veer off east into the Atlantic. But Sandy was pushed back toward the coast by a ridge of high "blocking" pressure over Greenland. This blocking pressure and the atmospheric pattern pulling the jet stream south may also be connected to climate change, although this is not clear yet. Some scientists are arguing this type of oscillation in the jet stream is happening because of the melting of Arctic sea ice in the summer and the presence of more open ocean that causes atmospheric changes affecting the jet stream. There is debate about this among scientists and it is not a settled question by any means at this point.

What is quite clear, however, is that hurricanes are fueled and draw their energy from warm ocean waters. Ocean temperatures in the northeast Atlantic this year have been 5 degrees F. higher than normal. The ocean temperature along the coast was at a near record high in September. Sandy drew energy from these above average water temperatures in the Atlantic and also from the energy drawn from the difference between the warm air mass off the ocean striking the colder air being drawn down from the north.

While the warmer Atlantic right now is apparently a mix of natural variation and a warming planet, there is a clear component of climate change within this, fueling what made this hurricane as strong and large as it was. As the atmosphere warms, more moisture develops in it, and this also plays a role in fueling more destructive storms. In an overall way, the oceans are warming as the planet warms. Climatologists say that with warmer oceans and more moisture in the atmosphere, hurricanes won't increase in number but their power, size, and destructiveness will tend to increase.

Climatologist Kevin Trenberth of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research put it this way: "Climate change is changing the weather. The past few years have been marked by unusually severe extreme weather characteristic of climate change. The oceans are warmer and the atmosphere above the oceans is warmer and wetter. This new normal changes the environment for all storms and makes them more intense and with much more precipitation."

The other climate change factor involved here is the fact that the seas have already risen because of global warming. All storms' ocean surges, including Sandy's extremely destructive one along the New Jersey and New York coasts, are made worse because of higher sea levels. This sea level rise will also get much worse if things go on as they are.

From what we know now, Sandy is another example of the more destructive storms that climate change is already bringing—a mix of natural phenomena and human caused global warming. It's a sign of what's to come. And this should cause us all indeed to reflect, and to act.



"In Hurricane Sandy's Fury, The Fingerprint Of Climate Change," Huffington Post, October 29, 2012

"Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?" Mark Fischetti, Scientific American, October 30, 2012

"Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change," Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker online, October 29, 2012

"Did Climate Change Supersize Hurricane Sandy?" Chris Mooney, Mother Jones, October 29, 2012

Interview with Bill McKibben, Democracy Now!, October 29, 2012

"Sandy versus Katrina, and Irene: Monster Hurricanes by the Numbers," Mark Fischetti, Scientific American, October 29, 2012


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