Hurricane Sandy and Our Rapidly Closing Window

Hurricane Sandy

Photo: Home destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in Breezy Point, Queens, New York, by Brad Hamilton.

Anyone who has seen the images last week of the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy is doubtless possessed of two emotional reactions: awe at the force of nature unleashed; and fear over the fate of those who failed to find secure ground in the face of the storm.

Those who look beneath the surface of the storm and its admittedly extravagant impacts might well find themselves struggling with an additional realization: that climate change fueled by humanity’s inability to wean itself off fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas emissions they create—is contributing to the frequency and intensity of storms like Sandy. After all, 9 of the 20 costliest storms in US history have occurred since 2000, and 4 of the “top 5” have taken place since 2008.

Coincidence? I think not. The shape of things to come? I think so.

In a story first reported in early 2011 by National Geographic News, Brian Handwerk cited new research that “rising greenhouse gas levels increase the odds of such extreme weather events—and perhaps make them stronger.” The research is among the first to present observable scientific evidence for a human role in altering the frequency and intensity of storms—although climate models have long suggested such a link.

What’s perhaps even more compelling Canadians is that the research was led by one of our own. Francis Zwiers, who heads the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, along with her colleagues, studied half a century’s worth of rainfall data (1951 to 1999) from across much of the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States, Europe, and Asia.

In roughly two-thirds of the weather stations represented, greenhouse gases—which have risen over the same period—correlated with intensification of heavy precipitation events. As Zwiers puts it: “What we see in these observations over a large area of the Northern Hemisphere is that the largest 24-hour precipitation event (single-day storm total) in a year is becoming larger over time.”

When real observed data was compared with climate models that account for the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, Zwiers found that “dramatic precipitation changes can’t be explained by natural forces.” While natural changes typically follow cycles or patterns of increase and decrease, like El Niño, the changes Zwiers documented did not.

What all of this means is that a warming atmosphere will be able to hold more water, and therefore will produce more precipitation—and the floods, power outages, property damages and other impacts that accompany it. But there is more. George Lakoff, a Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, in a provocative essay last week in The Huffington Post, argues that climate change systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy by heating:

…the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water. When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy.

Lakoff’s idea of systematic causation is an important one because it forces us to connect dots that might otherwise appear to be unrelated. As we look at the images of Atlantic City, much of it washed out to sea in the wake of Sandy, Lakoff has given us a mental framework on which we can hang warming water in the Atlantic—which drives increased energy and water vapor above the water, which in turn leads to more frequent and ferocious storms. Suddenly, climate change no longer seems such an invisible or abstract concept.

The creation of a mental framework on which we can deconstruct climate change and show the series of events—or “event drivers” as my colleague, Heather Bauer describes it—that lead to severe storms is one thing. Another is taking the lessons of a storm like Sandy and asking hard questions about your individual and community-level readiness for more frequent and severe storms. Returning to Francis Zwiers and his research, he notes:

If you think about the town that you live in, the storm sewer and water system may have been developed with a 100-year event in mind. If it stays the size it is, and greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase in the future as they have in the past, you might expect damages twice as frequently.

This is not abstract. The cost of Hurricane Sandy is yet to be tallied, but Hurricanes Katrina (2005), Ike (2008), Wilma (2005), and Ivan (2004) collectively cost $174 billion (USD). Rather than adopt a posture of accepting these costs as the “inevitable” price to be paid for living where we do, I believe we should reframe them as significant opportunity costs—the costs of opportunities foregone—arising from our carbon-heavy lifestyle, and the assumptions we have made about infrastructure and storm frequency.

Put another way, think about all the good things that didn’t happen because $174 billion had to be spent rebuilding after the hurricanes cited above.

There is still time to shift the way we live, work and play, and slow the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but the window is closing. Whether it is the extreme visceral intensity of something like Sandy, or the less extreme but still imposing king tides that come to coastal British Columbia at this time of year, my hope is that we get better at connecting the dots (or event drivers) and start making smarter decisions about energy, the economy and the environment.

Rob Abbott is the Executive Director of Carbon Neutral Government and Climate Action Outreach for the Province of British Columbia. He has spent more than half of his life studying and advising organizations across the world and the people who work in them with a view to shifting society onto a more sustainable trajectory. This post originally appeared at Abbott Strategies.

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