Hurricane Sandy Marks The Beginning Of A Superstorm Era, Warn Experts

Hurricane Sandy could herald a new era of superstorms and deadly weather, a number of experts have warned.

As the East Coast recovers from the battering it endured from Sandy, Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer told CNN, “It’s a foretaste of things to come.” Oppenheimer added that “bigger storms and higher sea levels” will form a “growing threat” in the 21st century, while a city like New York is “highly vulnerable.”

Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences, was behind a 2011 paper that modeled the impact of climate change on storm surges for the New York area. His work, which was published by Nature last year, concluded that the so-called “storm of the century” would soon become the storm of “every twenty years or less.” As Oppenheimer and his colleagues wrote, twelve months before the 900-mile wide Sandy hit the East Coast:

“Climate change will probably increase storm intensity and size simultaneously, resulting in a significant intensification of storm surges.”

Oppenheimer is far from alone in warning about New York’s vulnerability. In 2010, a study of the New York area by architect Guy Nordenson concluded:

“There is a prevalent risk that the city will be severely paralyzed due to the predicted inundation and wave action associated with storm surge.”

Increasingly, evidence suggests a link between shifting weather patterns and the disappearance of summer ice cover in the Arctic. Over the past 30 years, 1.3 million square miles of Arctic sea ice has vanished.

Although previous climate models predicted the Arctic could lose almost all of its summer ice cover by 2100, that date has been brought forward in more recent pojections, with scientists warning the disappearance of the ice cover is accelerating. Walter Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder warns:

“In addition to the extent of sea ice, what remains is thinner than it used to be.”

A decrease in sea ice means warmer water, and sea surface temperatures off the coast of the Northeast United States reflect this. Temperatures in the region are now the highest ever recorded. Meier describes this as “like leaving the fridge door open,” and says that the only way to halt the process would be to moderate temperature increases. Lowering carbon dioxide emissions, he argues, would be the only way to achieve this.

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And the consequences of a warmer Arctic (and hence ocean)? Writing on Yale University’s Environment 360 blog, Jennifer Francis at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University explains:

“Larger swings in the jet stream allow frigid air from the Arctic to plunge farther south, as well as warm, moist tropical air to penetrate northward.”

This coming together of Arctic and tropical weather fronts is what lay behind Sandy’s emergence, adds Lawrence.

Is there a way to protect New York and similar cities? Numerous ideas have been aired, from building higher sea walls and barrier islands to restoring oyster beds to installing gates across estuaries to raising subway entrances.

What’s your take on the possibility of a new superstorm era, and where do you stand on the role of climate change in this week’s events?