Hurricanes may become less frequent but more powerful in the future, studies suggest
The floodwaters whipped up by Hurricane Sandy have not yet receded but the temperature is rising on one of the toughest questions in modern science: whether we’re getting more extreme weather because of global warming.
Radical film-maker Michael Moore put it with characteristic bluntness. In a Tweet, he wrote: “Stop w/ the disaster porn and tell the America people the bitter truth: We have f***** up the environment & we are now paying the price.”
The governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, expressed it more politely: “Anyone who thinks there isn’t a change in weather patterns is denying reality.”
And to widespread surprise, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also made a link between Hurricane Sandy and global warming, though more guardedly.
The climate system is so complex, science is in the dark about how global warming will affect hurricanes
“Our climate is changing,” he said in a statement last night, remarkable in itself in the context of a presidential election year in which the word “climate” did not get a mention in any of the contenders’ debates.
Mr Bloomberg did not seek to pin any direct blame on climate change – in fact what he said actually reflects the current of the science rather accurately.
He said the “increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of [climate change].”
But “the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
The question is one of risk, not of certainty – the risk that the continuing rise in greenhouse gases from human activities may exacerbate extreme weather.
To go further, as many environmental campaigners would like to – to suggest that the violence of Hurricane Sandy is the result of global warming – is to strain what scientists themselves are able to conclude.
At face value it looks obvious: the basic ingredient for a tropical storm is a sea surface temperature above 26C (79F) and, with the oceans known to be warming, that essential condition may occur more often.
But many other factors come into play with the development of tropical storms – foremost among them is a phenomenon known as “wind shear”, which can kill off storms before they become threatening.
To say that more warming means more storms is to oversimplify a highly complex situation – and attract a barrage of criticism for unjustified green “alarmism”.
The perspective of the UK Met Office – which prides itself on tropical storm forecasts – is instructive for the degree of its caution.
For a start, the view is that the most accurate record of hurricanes – essential for any comparison – only stretches back to the start of the satellite era in the late 1970s.
Before then, there is no way of knowing whether storms which developed at sea then stayed out at sea and grew or died unseen and unrecorded. So the exact frequency and power of ALL tropical storms is only known for 30 years or so – too short a period, say Met Office scientists, to form a proper judgment.
What matters they say are the strength, frequency and duration of storms, which they measure with an Accumulated Cyclone Energy Index. And so far no trends are discernible, apparently.
Degrees of uncertainty
Second, although there are new techniques for attributing the role of climate change in weather events, this is an emerging area of science fraught with uncertainty.
The issue of climate change could sway floating voters in the US election, opinion polls suggest
Recent studies have run computer models of particular weather events – with and without the factor of man-made greenhouse gases – and concluded that they were made more-or-less likely as a result.
But these have tended to be events involving either heavy rainfall or high temperatures, which – in meteorological terms – are relatively straightforward compared to the complicated swirl of components in a tropical storm.
Sandy’s growth and journey up the Atlantic; the storm’s sudden turn West to the coast after encountering an Arctic high-pressure zone, the collision with a cold weather system – all this is extremely challenging to unpick, and its doubtful whether the science, as it stands, could tackle it rapidly.
Third, the models used to look ahead to climate change throw up a confusing set of results when it comes to hurricanes.
The posters promoting Al Gore’s move “An Inconvenient Truth” showed smoke from an industrial chimney rising into the spiral of a hurricane. But the latest research does not really support that image.
The most recent study into extreme weather, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggested that the most violent storms might become even stronger but that the overall number of hurricanes might actually diminish.
As a Met Office spokesman put it: “This is very long way of saying ‘we don’t know’.”
According to one prominent expert on disasters, Roger Pielke junior from the University of Colorado, the lesson from Hurricane Sandy is less one about climate change and more one of the need for proper preparedness.
“There are more people and more wealth in harm’s way,” he wrote in a newspaper article, and that is “mostly to the simple fact that people like being on the coast and near rivers.”
By his calculations, if Hurricane Sandy ends up costing US $20bn (£12bn), it would rank only 17th out of 242 storms to hit the US since 1990.
And he says the last storm to hit the US rated as a category three hurricane or higher – Sandy was just below a category one when it hit the East Coast – was back in 2005.
Dr Pielke acknowledges that “humans do affect the climate system” but he argues that there is no evidence that this can yet be blamed for recent disasters. More important, he says, is to focus on land use, protection and forecasting.
Others will point to counter-arguments:
- rising sea-levels gradually increases the risk of coastal flooding – true but over a timescale of decades;
- the record melt of sea-ice in the Arctic during this summer possibly changed the path of the jetstream and therefore the weather patterns – but the science on this is in its infancy;
- and that the warming of the atmosphere allows it to hold more moisture and therefore deliver more rain – though in the case of Hurricane Sandy, the impact was through wind and the storm surge rather than precipitation.
As the battered communities of the US East Coast try to rebuild their lives, the scholarly arguments about the cause of their misery is not likely to be uppermost in their minds.
But it’s brought into much sharper focus one of the hardest questions about climate change: what can the science reliably tell us about what global warming really means for each of us, not in the future, but here and now?
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Sandy leaves death and destruction in its wake
Part of a home rests upside-down in Seaside Heights, N.J Photo: AP Photo/Julio Corte
Devastation: NYC Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, in Queens. Photo: AFP
John Okeefe walks on the beach as a rollercoaster that once sat on the Funtown Pier in Seaside Heights, N.J., rests in the ocean Photo: AP Photo/Julio Cortez
Military personnel aid during an evacuation of Bellevue Hospital October 31, 2012 in New York City. The hospital had been operating on backup generators since losing power during Hurricane Sandy Photo: Allison Joyce/Getty Images/AFP
Seaside Heights, N.J. New Jersey got the brunt of Sandy Photo: AP Photo/Mike Groll
Residents look at destroyed homes, where they came to rest two blocks from their shoreline foundation in Seaside Heights, New Jersey Photo: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
A roller coaster sits in the surf after Hurricane Sandy destroyed the boardwalk and pier in Seaside Park, New Jersey Photo: REUTERS/Steve Nesius
A stretch of dark buildings in the Manhattan borough of New York Photo: (Michael Nagle/The New York Time
Rescue workers search for trapped residents in the Dongan Hills neighborhood of the Staten Island borough of New Photo: Michael Kirby Smith/The New York
Firefighters look for hot spots in the remains of some of the dozens of homes destroyed by fire in Breezy Point in the Queens borough of New York Photo: Robert Stolarik/The New York Tim
A firefighter walks through the remains of some of the dozens of homes destroyed by fire in Breezy Point in the Queens borough of New York Photo: Robert Stolarik/The New York Times
Much of the New York City skyline sits in darkness after Hurricane Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images/AFP
Residents look at flood waters left from Hurricane Sandy at the Breezy Point section of the Queens borough in New York Photo: REUTERS/Keith Bedford
This photo provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority shows the South Ferry subway station after it was flooded by seawater during superstorm Sandy Photo: AP Photo/ Metropolitan Transport
Aerial views shows the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard Photo: U.S. Air Force
Aerial views shows the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard on October 30, 2012. Photo: U.S. Air Force
This aerial photo shows burned-out homes in the Breezy Point section of the Queens borough New York after a fire on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The tiny beachfront neighborhood told to evacuate before Sandy hit New York burned down as it was inundated by floodwaters, transforming a quaint corner of the Rockaways into a smoke-filled debris field. Photo: (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
A destroyed vehicle sits near burnt homes and businesses after Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaway section of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
Fire burns near destroyed homes and businesses following Hurricane Sandy on October 30, 2012 in the Rockaway section of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
This aerial photo shows burned-out homes in the Breezy Point section of the Queens borough New York after a fire on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. Photo: (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
A view of trees destroyed by heavy snow from Hurricane Sandy on a farm in Garrett County, western Maryland Photo: REUTERS/Gary Cameron
This image provided by the US Coast Guard shows the property damages along the New Jersey coast caused by Hurricane Sandy, observed during an over-flight Photo: AFP PHOTO /-US COAST GUARD
An emergency responder helps evacuate two people with a boat, after their neighborhood experienced flooding due to Hurricane Sandy in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
A 168-foot water tanker, the John B. Caddell, sits on the shore Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, 2012 where it ran aground on Front Street in the Stapleton neighborhood of New York’s Staten Island as a result of superstorm Sandy. Photo: AP
Franken – Climate
BBC Documentary Climate Wars Episode 1
A recent study noted that the majority of people have enough food in their pantries to feed their household for about three days and that seemingly stable societies are really just nine meals from anarchy. With most of us dependent on just-in-time transportation systems to always be available, few ever consider the worst case scenario.
For tens of thousands of east coast residents that worst case scenario is now playing out in real-time. No longer are images of starving people waiting for government handouts restricted to just the third-world.
In the midst of crisis, once civilized societies will very rapidly descend into chaos when essential infrastructure systems collapse.
Though the National Guard was deployed before the storm even hit, there is simply no way for the government to coordinate a response requiring millions of servings of food, water and medical supplies
Many east coast residents who failed to evacuate or prepare reserve supplies ahead of the storm are being forced to fend for themselves.
Frustration and anger have taken hold, as residents have no means of acquiring food or gas and thousands of trucks across the region remain stuck in limbo.
Limited electricity has made it possible for some to share their experiences:
- I was in chaos tonite tryin to get groceries…lines for shuttle buses, only to get to the no food left & closing early (link)
- I’m not sure what has shocked me more, all the communities around me destroyed, or the 5 hour lines for gas and food. (link)
- Haven’t slept or ate well in a few days. Hope things start getting better around here soon (link)
- These days a lot of people are impatient because they’re used to fast things. Fast food, fast internet, fast lines and fast shipping etc. (link)
- Glad Obama is off to Vegas after his 90 minute visit. Gas lines are miles long.. Running out of food and water. Great Job (link)
- Went to the Grocery store and lines were crazy but nail salon was empty so I’ve got a new gel manicure and some Korean junk food (link)
- So f*cking devastated right now. Smell burning houses. People fighting for food. Pitch darkness. I may spend the night in rockaway to help (link)
Things are starting to become horrific for the unprepared, as food lines stretch for miles and Meals-Ready-To-Eat are in short supply:
(above images via Gothamist)
With mass transit out of service and no gas, residents have no choice but to commute by foot. Survival Blog founder James Rawles has referred to the masses of starving people who will roam the streets in a post-collapse world as the Golden Horde – here’s a small taste of what that will look like:
The situation has become so desperate that some have been forced to resort to rummaging through the garbage for food:
“We’ve seen everyone here from the elderly, to families with children…”
A simple 72 hour survival kit and some basic hurricane preparedness would have prevented days of heartache for residents of stricken areas.
The vast majority of those waiting in mile-long long food lines, rummaging through the trash, and criticizing their government officials for a slow and insufficient response have no one to blame but themselves.
This may be harsh – but it’s true.
We wish all those having a difficult time dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy the best going forward. Perhaps it will be a wake-up call for the rest of the nation.
Hurricane Sandy, while disastrous, is not nearly as bad as it could have been.
It has happened before. It will happen again. Prepare or suffer the consequences.
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times
A gas station in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had long lines on Thursday, and police officers to keep the peace. Officials said the fuel shortage would thin the taxi fleet. More Photos »
UNION, N.J. — Widespread gas shortages stirred fears among residents and disrupted some rescue and emergency services on Thursday as the New York region struggled to return to a semblance of normalcy after being ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
New York Area Services
- Buses Bus service will run on a near normal schedule. Expect delays and crowding.
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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
In West Caldwell, N.J., people waited at a Sunoco station in hopes it would get a gas delivery, though the station was closed. Area demand was increased by homeowners with gas-fueled generators. More Photos »
At a gas station in Queens, drivers waited for hours. The owner of a suburban gas station said: “People are panicking.” More Photos »
Tiny increments of progress — some subway and bus lines were back in service — were overshadowed by new estimates of the storm’s financial cost, struggles to restore power, and by the discovery of more bodies in flooded communities.
The lines of cars waiting for gas at a Sunoco here ran in three directions: a mile-long line up the Garden State Parkway, a half-mile line along Vauxhall Road, and another, including a fleet of mail trucks that needed to refuel before resuming their rounds, snaking through a back entrance. The scene was being replayed across the state as drivers waited in lines that ran hundreds of vehicles deep, requiring state troopers and local police to protect against exploding tempers.
“I’ve been pumping gas for 36 hours, I pumped 17,000 gallons,” said Abhishek Soni, the owner of an Exxon in Montclair, where disputes on the line Wednesday night had become so heated that Mr. Soni called the police and turned off the pumps for 45 minutes to restore calm. “My nose, my mouth is bleeding from the fumes. The fighting just makes it worse.”
Four days after Hurricane Sandy, the effort to secure enough gas for the region moved to the forefront of recovery work. The problems affected even New York City, where the Taxi Commission warned that the suddenly indispensable fleet of yellow cabs would thin significantly Friday because of the fuel shortage.
City officials said they had reached an agreement with a major supplier Thursday night that would ensure emergency operations — fire, police, sanitation and work by the parks department to clean up downed trees — would continue uninterrupted.
Though Thursday marked a return to routine for many who ride the subway to work or celebrated the resumption of power, the scenes of long lines, fistfights at gas stations and siphoning at parking lots highlighted the difficult, uneven slog to recovery.
The losses from the storm will approach $50 billion, according to an early estimate from economists at Moody’s Analytics — about $30 billion in property damage, the rest in lost economic activity like meals and canceled flights. At the same time the death toll in New York City rose to 38, as rescuers continued to discover bodies while combing through coastal wreckage. Among them were the bodies of two boys, 2 and 4, who had been torn from their mother by raging floodwaters on Staten Island on Monday night.
The lack of power continued to bedevil efforts to address the damage. About 43 percent of customers in New Jersey and about 16 percent in New York State remained without electricity, and officials said that they expected power to be restored to all of Manhattan by Saturday. Those issues were only aggravated by the increasingly short supply of gas, particularly given that many suburban residents in New Jersey and elsewhere were heading to the stations to fuel generators, which provided the lone source of power and heat to homes across the region.
According to figures from AAA, of the gas stations it monitors, roughly 60 percent of stations in New Jersey and 70 percent on Long Island were closed.
At stations that were open, nerves frayed. Fights broke out Thursday at the block-long Hess station on 10th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, forcing the Police Department to send three officers to keep the peace, a police official said. By evening, the police had to close two lanes of the broad thoroughfare to accommodate a line of customers stretching eight blocks, to 37th Street.
The ports and refineries that supply much of the region’s gas had been shut down in advance of the storm and were damaged by it. That disrupted deliveries to gas stations that had power to pump the fuel. But the bigger problem was that many stations and storage facilities remained without power.
Politicians were scrambling Thursday to increase the supply of fuel — the Port of New York and New Jersey opened just enough to allow boats carrying gas to move, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey waived restrictions that make it harder for stations to buy gas from out-of-state suppliers. Mr. Christie’s office had warned that price gougers would be prosecuted, but drivers were reporting that some stations were charging more than $4 a gallon, even though the state had set gas prices at $3.59 on the highways last week.
Mr. Christie said Thursday afternoon that President Obama had sent 250,000 gallons of gas and 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel to the state through the Department of Defense, and he pledged to send more if needed.
Despite these steps the situation was not expected to get significantly better on Friday. Utility companies said power might not be fully restored until late next week.
In Paterson, N.J., the state’s third-largest city, the Police Department was trying to negotiate emergency contracts for gas, and short of that, said it would beginning siphoning it from other city vehicles to keep police cruisers running.
The Essex County executive, Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., said that the fuel shortage had become his No. 1 concern, causing officials to start limiting gas half a tank at a time to police and fire vehicles. “All 22 of our municipalities are having problems getting fuel,” he said. “Everyone’s on edge.”
Some drove hours out of their way, across state lines, in search of gas. Others tried their luck at a dozen stations, finding many roped off, or turned to Twitter, trading tips about where lines were long.
That is how Jason Brown, 25, of St. Albans, Queens, learned there might be gas at a BP station two miles away in Valley Stream, Nassau County. He walked there lugging a five-gallon Igloo cooler hoping to fill it with gas for his car — only to find a line stretching a quarter-mile along Sunrise Highway. When the generator pumping the gas failed, the crowd erupted into fights and police were called in to close the station.
“I’m trying to get gas for my family,” Mr. Brown said. “Everywhere you go, it’s either a riot or there’s no gas.”
The lines themselves only exacerbated the problem; reports in the local media provoked drivers to buy gasoline before stations ran out. Some spent what fuel they had searching for more and could be seen pushing vehicles toward relief.
“I just want to have it, because you don’t know how long this is going to last,” said Richard Bianchi, waiting in the half-mile line at the Sunoco in Union with a tank that was three-quarters full.
“People are panicking,” said Jimmy Qawasmi, the owner of a Mobil in the Westchester County town of Mamaroneck. “People must have heard something.”
Bloomfield Avenue, a traffic artery connecting several towns in Essex County, N.J., was unusually congested as drivers stopped to lean out their windows at every station: “You got gas?” Mr. Soni’s station in Montclair had received a delivery of 8,000 gallons at 4 p.m. Wednesday, but that had run out by 2:30 a.m. Thursday. A tanker truck passed by, prompting a cheer. “I’m empty!” the driver called out.
Up the road, a tanker turned into one gas station just down from where a crowd was waiting at another. The people waiting dashed across the street, only to see the tanker turn and go to the station where they had been waiting. The police were refusing to let the station open for three hours, but people were determined to hold out.
As Benito Domena, holding two gas cans, said: “The wait is just going to be worse elsewhere.”
Reporting on the storm was contributed by Russ Buettner, Annie Correal, Alison Leigh Cowan, Sheri Fink, Joseph Goldstein, J. David Goodman, Denise Grady, Winnie Hu, Randy Leonard, William K. Rashbaum, Ray Rivera, Liz Robbins, Nate Schweber, Kirk Semple, Stacey Stowe, Rebecca White and Vivian Yee.