ANALYSIS: Climate Scientists Disagree on Impact of Climate Change – A week before a seminal presidential election, a powerful storm has already crippled a huge section of the east coast, bringing the nation’s financial markets to a halt, shutting down federal offices in DC along with public transportation across the east coast, and threatening the unthinkable if the storm damage is bad enough – altering the course of the nation’s elections.
Just how powerful is this storm? Well, the hurricane portion of it is *just* a category one storm, with sustained winds at 85 mph. But forecasters are alarmed, first by the record low pressure and also by the convergence of a strong midlatitude storm along with a blast of arctic air which, along with the moisture from Hurricane Sandy, figures to bring blizzards and five feet of snow to inland areas.
As senior meteorologist Stu Ostro put it: “History is being written as an extreme weather event continues to unfold, one which will occupy a place in the annals of weather history as one of the most extraordinary to have affected the United States.”
“This is an extraordinary situation, and I am not prone to hyperbole.”
But perhaps the strongest impact is its potential to alter the election. There is the obvious: candidates are being forced to tone things down just as they would be pushing into the home stretch. Appearances have been canceled. Messages have been altered.
There is the unthinkable – a tragedy so bad that the election would have to be delayed for weeks if good portions of the east coast are cut off from roadways and without power.
And there is the ironic. A storm may force us to grapple with the one issue that appeared off limits during the campaign. In four debates, no one asked about it – climate change and global warming.
After the second presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley explained the lack of questions on the topic of climate change. She explained, “Climate change — I had that question, all you climate change people. We just — you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing, so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.”
The question of climate change is tricky – after all, a storm is weather, not climate. As any climatologist will tell you: No single weather event, be it drought, snowfall or hurricane, is caused by climate change.
Instead, as Amanda Staudt, a climate scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, an environmental advocacy group, writes, climate change amplifies the intensity or duration of extreme weather. She likens it to “putting hurricanes on steroids.”
“The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question,” writes Kevin E. Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”
The Los Angeles Times reports on a number of potential factors in this storm. In the last 100 years or so the average temperature has increased from between 1.5 to 2 degrees. It does not sound like a lot but it has vast impacts. It means that the atmosphere can hold about 4% more moisture than it did since just 1970.
The LA Times, citing Jeff Masters, cofounder of the website Weather Underground and a former flight meteorologist “‘hurricane hunter” with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, writes, “A typical hurricane could dump 20% more rain than it does now.”
That’s one factor. The LA Times adds that the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a federal initiative, reports that research shows “the destructive energy of Atlantic hurricanes has increased in recent decades. The intensity of these storms is likely to increase in this century.”
Then there is the problem that it is late October, almost November, and we have a hurricane moving up the East Coast.
The LA Times reports, “The fact that the Atlantic is spawning hurricanes in late autumn may have to do with rising sea surface temperatures, recent research indicates.”
Jeff Masters reports that water temperatures are five degrees higher this year in the mid-Atlantic than normal, and this is contributing to “an unusually large amount of water vapor available to make heavy rain.”
The late arrival of the storm creates the possibility that Hurricane Sandy will combine with a cold front from Canada to produce the hybrid super storm.
The political debate in this country on climate change has hinged on the uncertainty of the causes and the effects of the warming. As the effects become more evident, the debate is likely to shift.
But others warn it’s too soon to say how much impact human-caused climate change is having on the confluence of three events.
Dot Earth’s Andrew Revkin writes in the New York Times: “It’s easy to say, as some climatologists have, that ‘climate change is present in every single meteorological event.’ . . . some climate scientists are telling me this event is precisely what you’d expect following a summer in which much of the Arctic Ocean was open water.”
He adds, “But there remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms – on time scales from decades to centuries – to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet.”
So there is indeed plenty of grist for both sides to chew on for a while. Unfortunately, the public policy debate was short-circuited by the mainstream media, who for some reason did not want to see this policy discussion.
In the end, I fear time is running out and the debate will be forced to move from mitigate the climate impact to living with climate change.
Then again, perhaps it is a good thing that our kids will associate Halloween with 80 degree weather – if only there weren’t such a huge cost to that change.
—David M. Greenwald reporting