Opinion: Super Storm Sandy

What role did climate change play in this week’s massive hurricane?

By Kevin Trenberth | October 31, 2012

Satellite image of Hurrican SandyNOAA-NASA GOES ProjectSandy started as an ordinary hurricane, feeding on the warm surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean for fuel.  The warm moist air spirals into the storm, and as moisture rains out, it provides the heat needed to drive the storm clouds.  By the time Sandy made landfall on Monday evening, it had become an extratropical cyclone with some tropical storm characteristics: a lot of active thunderstorms but no eye.  This transformation came about as a winter storm that had dumped snow in Colorado late last week merged with Sandy to form a hybrid storm that was also able to feed on the mid-latitude temperature contrasts.  The resulting storm—double the size of a normal hurricane—spread hurricane force winds over a huge area of the United States as it made landfall.   Meanwhile an extensive easterly wind fetch had already resulted in piled up sea waters along the Atlantic coast.  This, in addition to the high tide, a favorable moon phase, and exceedingly low pressure, brought a record-setting storm surge that reached over 13 feet in lower Manhattan and coastal New Jersey.  This perfect combination led to coastal erosion, massive flooding, and extensive wind damage that caused billions in dollars of damage.

In many ways, Sandy resulted from the chance alignment of several factors associated with the weather. A human influence was also present, however.  Storms typically reach out and grab available moisture from a region 3 to 5 times the rainfall radius of the storm itself, allowing it to make such prodigious amounts of rain. The sea surface temperatures just before the storm were some 5°F above the 30-year average, or “normal,” for this time of year over a 500 mile swath off the coastline from the Carolinas to Canada, and 1°F of this is very likely a direct result of global warming.  With every degree F rise in temperatures, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more moisture. Thus, Sandy was able to pull in more moisture, fueling a stronger storm and magnifying the amount of rainfall by as much as 5 to 10 percent compared with conditions more than 40 years ago.  Heavy rainfall and widespread flooding are a consequence.  Climate change has also led to the continual rise in sea levels—currently at a rate of just over a foot per century—as a result of melting land ice (especially glaciers and Greenland) and the expanding warming ocean, providing a higher base level from which the storm surge operates. 

These physical factors associated with human influences on climate likely contribute to more intense and possibly slightly bigger storms with heavier rainfalls.  But this is very hard to prove because of the naturally large variability among storms.  This variability also makes it impossible to prove there is no human influence.  Instead, it is important to recognize that we have a “new normal,” whereby the environment in which all storms form is simply different than it was just a few decades ago.  Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and sub-surface ocean temperatures, a warmer and moister atmosphere above the ocean, higher water levels around the globe, and perhaps more precipitation in storms.

The super storm Sandy follows on the heels of Isaac earlier this year and Irene last year, both of which also produced widespread flooding as further evidence of the increased water vapor in the atmosphere associated with warmer oceans. Active hurricane seasons in the North Atlantic since 1994 have so far peaked with three category 5 hurricanes in the record breaking 2005 season, one of which was Katrina.  As human-induced effects through increases in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere continue, still warmer oceans and higher sea levels are guaranteed. As Mark Twain said in the late 19th century, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Now humans are changing the weather, and nobody does anything about it! As we have seen this year, whether from drought, heat waves and wild fires, or super storms, there is a cost to not taking action to slow climate change, and we are experiencing this now.

From New Zealand, Kevin Trenberth is a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He has been heavily engaged in the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), where he currently chairs the Global Energy and Water Exchanges (GEWEX) program, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

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Avatar of: Howard A, Doughty

Howard A, Doughty

Posts: 11

November 1, 2012

Climatology is not my field, so I remain agnostic on the matter of human activities and Hurricane Sandy. The best I can do is say that the people who insist that there is no link between human agency and climate change are the same people who have lied to me about scientific, political and other matters all my life, whereas the people who are convinced that there is a causal link have generally told me the truth. I therefore tend to believe the latter.

The problem in the article comes when Trenberth says that "a new normal" has been established, adds that any relationship to human agency is either "very hard" or "impossible" to prove," but then concludes that "humans are changing the weather."

It seems that he, like me, is taking human agency and culpability on faith. I'd like to have seen a tighter argument, and one that came to evidence-based conclusions.


Avatar of: bud


Posts: 3

November 1, 2012

We are having a climate change, but it is not man made.  The author claims that the warm ocean temperature accounted for the severity of the rain and wind.  If the polar ice is melting, as claimed, the ocean water would be cooler, not warmer.

This was a unique storm assisted by high tide, lunar gravity, and a severe storm from the west.  Perhaps this storm was caused by Al Gore's massive private jet. 

Avatar of: Rudifru


Posts: 1

November 1, 2012

Whoever Kevin Trenberth is, he did NOT share the Nobel prize - just ask the Peace Nobel committee in Oslo, and they will tell you they never heard of Kevin, just as they have never heard of Michael Mann. Science should know better than propagating false claims like this. 

Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 18

November 1, 2012

The usual driveling morons jump in with their heads firmly shoved up where they like the scenery better than the real world. 

Of course it's from man-made global warming! This was predicted back in 1970. I've read the papers, and those early papers have tracked, just a little bit low. 

Raise the temperature and extreme weather events rise in frequency! Any fool with a memory longer than a year can watch the news and see a rise in extreme weather events. D'oh. 

People in low-lying areas near the oceans of the world are in areas that will become uninhabitable. People will tray to hang on of course. Humans are stupid that way. Smart people will move inland to higher ground in better construction. Either that, or like the Dutch, they will build taller and taller dikes and stronger and stronger flood gates. 

Deal with it. 

Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 18

Replied to a comment from Howard A, Doughty made on November 1, 2012

November 1, 2012

It's simple. Climate scientists have been attacked for decades now. Weather science is immersed in chaos theory. That means that you can NEVER have a Newtonian mechanical linkage. Scientists are not well known for their backbones. Having a strong backbone is a good way to be eliminated from a university. Tenure committees frown on it, because anybody with a backbone doesn't suck up to the toadies who run science departments. And if they don't have a toadie running the department, they have a taxidermy-job in the administration building that has huge influence on their budget. 

Ergo - climate scientists won't say anymore straight up what is obvious. 

But the oldest models have proven very robust. It's really straightforward. Count the average temperature, number and intensity of weather events. Do they go up? There you are. 

But they go up like the stock market goes up. They bounce around a lot in the short term.  (Google Stock market averages 100 years to see what I mean.) But the density of events has grown tighter. The system has more energy in it. 

Think about it this way. A 1.3 degree average rise over the entire globe represents how much energy? Think about how you would calculate that. It's enough energy to turn all of Lake Michigan into plasma if it were concentrated there. (i.e. far more than boil the lake). 

So of course global warming is real. Of course this storm was related. But the way that the ravening pack of undead morons have screeched at climate scientists has made them very reluctant to try to explain how weather can't be predicted with certainty in any local area, but only collectively over time. 

You can think of it as like a pot with heat under it. Raise the temp one degree and there will be more bubbles rising from the bottom. Can you ascribe the appearance of one specific bubble to the rise in temperature? Not exactly, because you would have had bubbles rising anyway. But you can in a broad sense, because you can, over a period of time, count more of them. 

More tornadoes. More droughts. More hurricanes. And the severity rises when taken in aggregate. 

We (the human race) won't do anything to stop it worth mentioning. We are collectively a thumb-sucking idiot. But individuals can help themselves. They can move to higher ground. People can build stronger houses, or at least houses that have shelters from severe storms. People can move to nations less likely to go to war when food shortages and refugees happen. Or at least, people can try to be in countries likely to win at war over food and land. 

So it's not faith - not at all. It is very real and it is here. Has been for a long time. 

Avatar of: MikeH


Posts: 16

Replied to a comment from Howard A, Doughty made on November 1, 2012

November 1, 2012

"Climatology is not my field, so I remain agnostic on the matter of human activities and Hurricane Sandy. ...  I'd like to have seen a tighter argument, and one that came to evidence-based conclusions."

And there you have it.  This is why our society has a growing problem with science denial across a wide range of topics, and it is not linked to the usual ideological biases of politics and religion.  We have been taught from an early age in the last few decades that we must be our own scientists, assess the data ourselves, and come to our own conclusions.  We aren't just checking up on the highly trained professionals.  We don't trust them.  At no time are we taught, in school or through the media, that there is good and logical reason to just accept conclusions from the scientific community that have high confidence.  Its a widely used misapplication of the pedagogical science class exercise of having the student simulate the process of doing science.  Its commonly misapplied to give the lesson that this is how we must always analyze science news.  Combine that with misunderstanding of what uncertainty means in science and we get a population that operates as though they believe they get to vote on science conclusions, like it was a democratic exercise.

Avatar of: Truthmonger


Posts: 3

November 1, 2012

Could Hurricane Sandy be Weather Modification at Work?


Avatar of: MedicalQuack


Posts: 1

November 1, 2012

I do a healthcare blog and occasionally I touch on some scientifc areas and this is a good one.  I did a post on it and there was a video, to which I know there's controversy about "chemtrails" and I am not either a yes or no but published the video just to go along withe the rest the content.  Some say it's nonsense, some say there's something to it and the web is filled with videos to include a video the day before the storm hit, which is not related but I just ran across it. 

The part of the entire focus that I found of interest though was the investing in "weather derivatives" and that blew me away as what in the world else can the quants think of?  Some of those folks on the street could maybe do better work returning to real science instead of partly fictitional formulas to make millions which will catch up with them in time.


One does wonder though with however the "crap" gets up there, how does it affect the weather or is this a process the planet goes through from time to time and can they seed clouds, etc.  I am assuming they have not had a lot of luck with the last, otherwise we would not have droughts that are as hard hitting. 

On another topic there was the PLOS one study yesterday that substantiates that "math" causes pain, interesting if you have not seen it.  I jumped on it with a bit of tongue and cheek saying this explains why consumers get Algo Duped, a new coin of mine.  I used to write code so I get this and try to bring in the layman into some of it with using simple language and sometimes it works and sometiems it doesn't:)  At any rate theres a link in there to the Algo Dupe area where I brought 4 very relative videos together done by people smarter than me that drives this home, especially in the financial markets where everyone is really duped and we all suffer as nobody check for accuracy. 


Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

Replied to a comment from bud made on November 1, 2012

November 1, 2012

"If the polar ice is melting, as claimed, the ocean water would be cooler, not warmer."  This would be true in a closed system, like an infinitely insulated glass of water.  But, the Earth is an open system, so that real glass of water, once very cold, eventually reaches room temperature from its surroundings.

Paul Stein

Avatar of: Mounthell


Posts: 53

November 2, 2012

Howard A, Doughty wants a "tighter argument" but would not be able to understand the science behind such tight argumentation that is already available.  Like creationist/IDers, deniers are incapable of understanding such information even when it is diluted to the greatest degree possible (without losing meaning) for average lay audiences and, therefore, blithely deny that it exists.  If they didn't deny it, they would be forced to confront their own incompetence, which they haven't the courage to do, and remedially rectify their mental hiatus in order to contribute to the good of society in general.

bud apparently assumes the world functions as it is revealed to those lacking basic levels of logic and common knowledge. "bud" apparently doesn't know that shiny white objects stay cooler in the sunlight than do dull black things which get relatively hotter faster.  Ice fields on earth reflect much more of the sun's incoming energy ("insolation"; notice the first 'o') which, due to our atmosphere's circulation, keeps us all cooler and our oceans relatively dense and within their margins.

However, remove the ice and that area, and all the rest of the earth, gets hotter. Increase atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane gases and the earth's heat, normally radiated into space, gets absorbed by the gases and a portion of which is then reradiated BACK to earth and a portion of that ....  That's why losing ice and adding gases is causing our earth to warm rapidly.  Moreover, as the oceans warm, their density decreases as they thermally EXPAND which raises the sea level and makes it easier for seawater to be pushed by (storm) winds into NY harbor and into, for example, the subways.

Modest proposal: Let's have everyone take a basic science and logic test to maintain their citizenship on the home planet; those deigning to opt out qualify for free transit to Mars (think of the many vacancies in the US Congress that will result!). Oh, and do write!

Avatar of: Bruce


Posts: 1

November 6, 2012

concerning global warming, I have been saying for years that it is not global warming but global wilding everything will be more extreme, hotter and colder, higher winds, more drought and more floods. How ever after learning much of the suppressed info, I believe Obama found out US has weather control and started the storm to get reelected, search HAARP , geo engineering and chem trails. For the answer to global warming please check out fuel conversion that will increase mileage 500% and cut emissions 95% Please see and share wwww.himacresearch.com byronwine.com rexreaserch.com There are hundreds of patents for this filled on these that are bought and shelved by oil companies. If it does not work then why buy the patents??? sounds unbelievable, but my book explains it so complete I offer money back if not convinced 2500 sold only 2 refunds , read for free at himac site because I really do care about our future children. The truth must get out for them.

Avatar of: Cheaptrx


Posts: 47

December 17, 2012

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