Hurricane Sandy: In The Wake of Tragedy, A Cold, Wet Wakeup Call.

October 30, 2012 § 1 Comment

As I roam Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc., I’ve come across hundreds of friends, family, colleagues, schoolmates, and acquaintances who keep posting about the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. Headlines on local news sites read “Plainview Resembles War Zone as Hurricane Winds Pound Region” and “Hurricane Sandy: Massive Fire Destroys Dozens of Homes in Queens, NY.” Downed power lines, destroyed homes, flooded streets, beloved places in ruin. It breaks my heart to see what damage has been caused by nature, but at the same time, it gives me new hope that now, maybe, just maybe, people will understand: This is no ordinary storm.

Of course, to many people, hurricanes are, by their definition, no ordinary storms. Unfortunately, however, they are quite ordinary. Hurricanes form in tropical climates, where the water is at least 80 Degrees Fahrenheit. The storm continues to build as it moves from the western coast of Africa to the Caribbean, where the bands of thunderstorms that encircle the calm eye of the storm provide a positive feedback loop that builds the storm bigger and bigger, until it eventually hits land and dissipates. The movement and rotation of hurricanes is caused by the Coriolis effect, the same effect that creates the crosswinds and trade winds that helped the sailors who discovered America and that up until recently moderated our climate. It’s all a perfectly normal, natural process.

Hurricanes are normal. Sandy was not your typical hurricane, however.

Jim Cisco, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric  Administration forecaster coined the term that best describes Sandy: Frankenstorm. It’s a mashup of worst-case scenarios. While slightly comedic, ABC News was spot on to mix in footage from The Perfect Storm, the 2000 George Clooney/Mark Wahlberg picture based on the 1991 nor’easter that mixed itself into Hurricane Grace and ravaged the northeastern United States exactly 21 years ago. Sandy approached the Northeast just as a cold front was approaching from the west and winds were blowing down furiously from Canada. Oh, and it was happening on a full moon, which means the highest tides of the month were ready to surge up onto land. It was to be, perhaps, a more perfect storm.

Hurricane/Frankenstorm/Superstorm Sandy was poised, from the beginning, to wreak havoc. Sure, the natural weather conditions I just discussed were set to make it a pretty rough storm to begin with, but if this storm had happened 50, even maybe 10 years ago, it would not have been nearly as destructive. The main destructive forces at work were Sandy’s diameter of gale force winds (at about 1,000 miles, they made Sandy the largest Hurricane in history), the high storm surge (at least 10 feet), and the heavy rain (up to 12 inches in some areas), which is associated with massive flooding. All of these factors are what make Sandy a freak of nature Frankenstorm, and they can all be attributed to one thing: Global Warming and Climate Change.

Cynics and climate-change deniers, before you say a word, I’ll make it clear. Global warming did not cause Hurricane Sandy. As I said earlier, hurricanes are very regular, natural things. It did, however, exacerbate it, by creating climate conditions that fostered a more dangerous storm. And here’s how:

  1. Warmer Oceans = Stronger Hurricanes. Hurricanes are warm-water storms, so by raising the temperature of our oceans, we create more hospitable territory for hurricanes. Normally, when a hurricanes reach the Northeast, they hit water too cold to survive in, and downgrade to tropical storms, make landfall, and disintegrate. Thanks to the greenhouse effect and the unimaginable amounts of greenhouse gasses we have emitted over the past three centuries, our oceans have risen about 5 degrees Celsius, creating northern waters that can continue to support hurricanes longer, allowing them to hit harder and over a larger area.
  2. Higher Sea Levels = More Damaging Storm Surges. Melting sea-ice has, as we all know, raised sea levels quite dramatically. Even if we hadn’t raised ocean temperatures (hypothetically, since then we obviously also wouldn’t have melted the sea ice), higher sea levels make shorelines more susceptible to gigantic storm surges. It’s plain and simple: There’s more water, and it’s closer to the land, so it makes for floods like no one has ever seen.
  3. Paved Roads = Nowhere to Go. Ok, so this is less to do with global warming, but still important. Humans have paved the world, in the interest of giving us places to go and ways to get there. Ironically, this has given water nowhere to go. In a natural ecosystem, water would be absorbed into the ground, and any excess would become runoff that would eventually find its way to streams and rivers. When we’ve paved over the entire northeast, however, there’s nowhere for that water to be absorbed. Asphalt is non-pourous. So, all of the water – from the 12 inches of rain and the 10ft storm surges- becomes runoff, pooling up and flooding many neighborhoods. Check out the gallery below for pictures of what that looks like.

It should be quite obvious now as to why Sandy is no typical storm, and how we’ve made this problem worse for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong: This was an absolute tragedy, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected by this storm, especially all those back home on Long Island and in the Tri-State Area. It’s going to be a long recovery, but this is not the time to wallow in self-pitty. This is a time to wake up, and get going.

Think of Hurricane Sandy as Mother Nature throwing a bucket of water on you to get you up and out of bed. Get moving people. Repairs will take some time. While they’re happening, let’s fix some other things as well. This isn’t a problem that can be solved by building just a new levy, or by perparing better next time. No, this problem will only be solved by changing our ways. We NEED to stop our fossil fuel dependence. We need to stop polluting our air. Hopefully, we’ve all now finally felt the effects of global warming. Lives are at stake here. We’re not going to see the change overnight. We might not live to see it. But if we stop now – not in 20 years, not in 10, but NOW – we might leave a world for our grandchildren to inhabit.

Bill McKibben, one of America’s greatest environmentalists, has wrote extensively on this subject. He’s put out a recent piece about the hurricane, but the more important piece of writing he’s recently put out is a Rolling Stone article about climate change, in which he reminds us that we’ve already surpassed the safe level of carbon that can be in our atmosphere. It’s no longer a problem for our grandchildren. Its our problem We’re living it. Sandy is a wakeup call. We need to fix this.


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Special thanks to Prof. Bob Wilson (Syracuse University) for some of the key facts for this post.


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