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Is Climate Change Responsible For Sandy?

Oct 31, 2012
Originally published on October 31, 2012 6:53 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The link was inevitably made and you can bet it's the subject of conversations and arguments all over the country. Was Sandy an example of climate change, climate change brought on or intensified by human behavior? New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to think the question is settled. Here's some of what he said today.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme where there is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.

SIEGEL: Others disagree about Sandy as a consequence of climate change. Global temperatures rising, they say yes. But a particular storm, not so fast.

Well, joining us now is Dr. Martin Hoerling who is a research meteorologist at NOAA's Earth Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to the program.

DR. MARTIN HOERLING: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And, first, broadly speaking, did you see this gigantic storm as something caused by changes in climate?

HOERLING: No. By and large, this is a storm that comes rarely but has come before. It's interesting. You can go back sometime, a storm that some call the Long Island and Norfolk Hurricane of 1821. And the storm surge at the Battery was greater than the one, Sandy, that happened just Monday evening.

SIEGEL: But for a lot of us laymen, there is at least a strong impression that extreme weather events are just happening more and more frequently. Is there actually a profusion of extreme weather events? And should that be more problematic than the causality of one particular storm or another?

HOERLING: There are certain extremes for which the data indicate, pretty unequivocally, that climate change - the warming of the planet - is causing them to increase in frequency. Most noteworthy are heat waves, record daily temperatures that are eclipsing previous record values. And that's entirely consistent with a planet as a whole that's moving toward warmer conditions.

SIEGEL: But hurricanes?

HOERLING: No.

SIEGEL: There is no correlation, you're saying.

HOERLING: No, there isn't. There's no - let me say this way, there is really low confidence that climate change has affected the frequency or intensity, or tracks of these disturbances.

SIEGEL: And is it wrong to draw any link between the warming temperature and the weather over the ocean?

HOERLING: So this is an interesting point. So the ocean temperatures adjacent to the Eastern Seaboard, this late to summer, have been running several degrees warmer than normal. Now, here's a bit of a technical aspect. In terms of hurricanes formed over warm waters in the tropics, and they tend to begin decaying as they encounter cooler waters. The unusually warm waters off the Eastern Seaboard were however in areas where the background temperature is like 60 degrees Fahrenheit. So adding a few degrees Fahrenheit at that cool water temperature doesn't matter too much for the intensity of a hurricane.

SIEGEL: Let's say you had the ear of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. And you say: Here, your New York City lives by the subway, the subways and tunnels. There're tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey into Brooklyn. There's a lot of underground infrastructure. Given the current climate, that's more dangerous than it used to be. Does that premise standup or no?

HOERLING: It does stand up, and I'll be specific how it stands up. There is a nice historical record of the tide level at the Battery just below Manhattan that goes back to 1850s. And that time series, which is fairly complete up to current, shows a rise in the total sea level of about one foot in the 150 years of that record.

Now, we have 14-foot rise related to Sandy. So one foot out of 14 may not be something that is critical. But it may very well be in the sense that that last foot maybe the foot that moved the water into very prone areas.

SIEGEL: Dr. Hoerling, thank you very much for talking with us.

HOERLING: Thank you for calling. I'm glad I could answer your questions.

SIEGEL: That's Martin Hoerling, research meteorologist at NOAA's Earth System Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Throughout the program, we're remembering some of those who have died in the storm. John Rose, Sr. was 60 years old and owned a whitetail deer farm in Philippi, West Virginia.

SIEGEL: His son, George, says his father died Tuesday after being struck by a falling tree branch. He'd gone outside to check on the farm's fences.

CORNISH: John Rose was an outdoorsman, a husband of 26 years.

SIEGEL: A father of three, grandfather to seven. A man who, his daughter-in-law Kelly says, if he was still alive would tell them there was still work left to do on farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.