3Qs: With Sandy, climate change 'loads the dice'

Nov 01, 2012 by Matt Collette

Though it's dif­fi­cult to tie a spe­cific storm like Hur­ri­cane Sandy to the phe­nom­enon of cli­mate change, Auroop Gan­guly, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering at North­eastern, says "It is becoming increas­ingly harder to ignore the empir­ical evi­dence" that human-​​influenced cli­mate change affects the weather.

What role does climate change play in the development of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, which battered much of the East Coast with high winds and floodwaters?

Cli­mate change loads the dice. How­ever, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity has usu­ally been extra cau­tious before attributing any one weather extreme event to cli­mate change. This is espe­cially true for extremes such as hur­ri­canes where the link with cli­mate change is less well understood.

The cur­rent state of cli­mate sci­ence allows the attri­bu­tion of cer­tain types of to cli­mate change, but pri­marily in terms of average sta­tis­tics. Thus, we can say with some con­fi­dence that have been inten­si­fying, and will con­tinue to do so at con­ti­nental to global scales. There have been recent devel­op­ments in our ability to attribute pre­cip­i­ta­tion extremes to cli­mate change. We are also get­ting better at attri­bu­tions of more local­ized extremes. In fact, one British group was able to attribute flood risks for autumn of 2000 in Eng­land and Wales to human-​​induced emis­sions. How­ever, hur­ri­canes are much harder, and one extreme event remains dif­fi­cult to attribute.

That being said, it is becoming increas­ingly harder to ignore the empir­ical evi­dence. Based on cur­rent under­standing, the more intense hur­ri­canes are expected to inten­sify fur­ther on an average. What we are seeing now cer­tainly does not dis­agree with our cur­rent under­standing of the impli­ca­tions of human-​​induced global warming.

Should storms like Sandy, which arrive late in hurricane season and pack a powerful punch, be considered something of a new normal? And if so, how must those in areas likely to be impacted change how they think about these storms?

Cer­tainly there is a need to increase pre­pared­ness levels for more intense hur­ri­canes and per­haps extended hur­ri­cane sea­sons. This is a per­fect example where the cli­mate sci­ence may not yet be as pre­cise as we would like, but impor­tant pre­pared­ness deci­sions still need to be made with some urgency. This is also an example where delayed deci­sions may cost human lives, destroy crit­ical infra­struc­tures and damage economies. The impor­tance of adap­ta­tion and pre­pared­ness in this con­text cannot be overstated.

Inten­si­fying hur­ri­canes, rising sea levels and growing storm surges, in con­junc­tion with growth of pop­u­la­tion and infra­struc­tures in regions at risk, point to the need for sus­tain­able urban and coastal plan­ning, and includes the need to develop greater resilience to nat­ural haz­ards. Advances in weather and cli­mate sci­ences, as well as early-​​warning sys­tems, can help save lives and pre­serve infra­struc­tures. Com­mu­nity and infra­struc­tural resilience, as well as emer­gency pre­pared­ness, are crit­ical and may pre­vent haz­ards from becoming dis­as­ters. Mea­sures ranging from effec­tive design strate­gies to public edu­ca­tion and evac­u­a­tion plan­ning, among others, can help.

We may not be able to attribute single storms to cli­mate change or pin­point the exact loca­tions of land­falls in advance, but we can still develop new adap­ta­tion and pre­pared­ness strate­gies. As our sci­ence improves, such strate­gies may be fine-​​tuned, but mounting evi­dence sug­gests that inac­tion may turn out to be cost­lier than action.

How can scientists tell if extreme weather incidents like Sandy are one-off storms or if they are part of a larger shift in climate? 

Attributing extreme weather to cli­mate change rather than nat­ural cli­mate vari­ability requires metic­u­lous analysis of data, typ­i­cally from both obser­va­tions and model sim­u­la­tions. The latter may include global and regional cli­mate models, as well as more local­ized numer­ical models to sim­u­late weather extremes. The sta­tis­tical tech­niques are rel­a­tively well devel­oped in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions but need fur­ther devel­op­ment for other conditions. The sci­ence of attri­bu­tion has been steadily improving, but what has remained con­stant is the need for detailed and metic­u­lous shifting through data and run­ning of models to delin­eate pos­sible causality.

The type of "fin­ger­prints" that cli­mate sci­en­tists look for are, for example, co-​​occurrence of observed pat­terns and events that are sta­tis­ti­cally robust; prece­dence struc­tures sug­ges­tive of cause-​​effect rela­tions; and sig­nif­i­cant changes in pro­jec­tions from mul­tiple model runs. The metic­u­lous studies leading to delin­eation of causality or attri­bu­tions can take a while and would typ­i­cally require gath­ering of rel­a­tively large vol­umes of observed data and gen­er­a­tion of model sim­u­la­tions. While we are grad­u­ally get­ting better, there is still some way to go before we can con­fi­dently make more pre­cise attributions.

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User comments : 7

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Skepticus
1.5 / 5 (8) Nov 01, 2012
There are a few ways to look at a super-storm like Sandy...
1. Global warming deniers and atheists will says it's just a natural peak event in long term weather. Well, more "peaks" like it will cost trillions more in the face of the current trend of sickly economy. Which will be the final straw?
2. Buddhists would say collective karma. What we have sown is what we are reaping, a similar standpoint with the global warming proponents. With international efforts to make a change on this planet getting nowhere, we'll still be screwed for trillions more.
3. Xtians, Hindus,Jews and Muslims or any other God-based believers will say "it's an act of God!" Which begs the question: "How well are we conducting ourselves, that God(s) see fit to dish out such punishment??? We are still screwed for trillions!!!
Any other explanations?
rubberman
3 / 5 (2) Nov 01, 2012
"That being said, it is becoming increas­ingly harder to ignore the empir­ical evi­dence."

Such as 15 hurricanes hitting Newfoundland in recorded history, but 7 of them since 1995, 8 in the previous 200 years.

84 hitting New york in recorded history, but 23 since 1995, 61 in the previous 380 years.

Both happening in the same year of a summer cyclone in the arctic ocean and an almost full melt of the greenland ice sheet extending over 3 days.

3. Xtians, Hindus,Jews and Muslims or any other God-based believers will say "it's an act of God!"

Apparently God's play had several acts this year....but hey...it's just weather.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (4) Nov 02, 2012
"Apparently God's play had several acts this year..but hey..it's just weather."
So the logic goes:
1. God(s) is/are not pissed at us at no time.
2. Man is not at faults at no time.
3. Nature does everything all the time.
So, has nature's acts any underlying rules? If nature's acts are truly, utterly random, then Humanity's time of existence is really up to chance, unless Nature's actions can be elucidated, and Humanity is prepared to use their brains and will to break the inevitable fate. How many out there want to make as much wealth, power and glory as possible before turning to dust, leaving their progeny to die off? At a first guess, quite a lot right now. Why worry? Many believe you only have one shot at life. Even if you do rape,murder,cheat,rob,steal, manipulating stocks,blowing up infidels,or pushing for wars six ways to Sunday,if you repent at the last minute then the compassionate God will still grant you everlasting happy lives in Heaven or Paradise..It's good, isn't it?
VendicarD
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 02, 2012
It isn't happening. It can't be happening.

It isn't happening. It can't be happening.

It isn't happening. It can't be happening.

It isn't happening. It can't be happening.

It isn't happening. It can't be happening.

If it were happening then my political ideology would be wrong, and since Free Market Conservatism must be right, it must all be a Filthy Liberal conspiracy against me.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (4) Nov 03, 2012
Thanks to all who disagree with me by voting 1. So, I have to go on record here that they disagree with:
1. God(s) is/are not pissed at us at no time.
2. Man is not at faults at no time.
3. Nature does everything all the time.

Maggnus
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 03, 2012
Thanks to all who disagree with me by voting 1. So, I have to go on record here that they disagree with:


I didn't vote, however I would suggest your diatribe was given a 1 because:
1) there is nothing in your comments that have to do with the article.
2) Your comments are poorly articulated, your syntax is garbled and your sentence structure and lack of paragraphs makes reading your comments a challenge
3) you appear to be attacking religion for no reason other than to attack religion.

Skepticus
2 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2012
Thanks to all who disagree with me by voting 1. So, I have to go on record here that they disagree with:


I didn't vote, however I would suggest your diatribe was given a 1 because:
1) there is nothing in your comments that have to do with the article.
2) Your comments are poorly articulated, your syntax is garbled and your sentence structure and lack of paragraphs makes reading your comments a challenge
3) you appear to be attacking religion for no reason other than to attack religion.


Thanks for your advice. I'd take more care next time. Voters here are quite touchy lately. Must be affected by the election.. Cheers:-)