As early as October 23, weather forecast models predicted that tropical storm Sandy would be a threat to the Mid-Atlantic States and New England. By the 25th, the forecasts from several weather centres provided a consistent story of a large hurricane that would turn sharply to the west, and cross the coast in New Jersey. The story from the forecast turned out to be largely correct. The model predictions provided time to plan – to anticipate so that risk and loss could be reduced.
This storm is also a climate-change case study. It reveals, even with the benefit of preparedness, the weather-related vulnerabilities of our society. We see the connections between subway tunnels, financial markets, chemical plants, refineries, environmental risk, and the personal loss of houses by wind, flood, and fire – all rooted in increased weather volatility in a warming climate.
In this time of intense political scrutiny in the U.S., the occurrence of Hurricane Sandy spawned countless articles. Some mentioned the impacts that Hurricane Andrew had on President George H.W. Bush's re-election; others, the practical considerations of this season's campaigns being halted. Many focused on the opportunity for the candidates to show leadership, seriousness, sympathy, and empathy. There are learned and speculative analyses of the benefits of bad weather on Republicans and Democrats.
But there has been little written about how Hurricane Sandy highlights the dangerous absence of climate change in US politics. Climate change is one of many important subjects that politicians in the US cannot seem to address.
We feel our climate through weather. We already have measured evidence of increased numbers of extreme storms. We also have measured changes in how storms are steered across North America; they are moving more slowly. Slower storms mean they stay around longer. It rains more and the wind blows for a longer time – trees fall, power grids fail, streets and fields flood.
Hurricane Sandy is enormous in size. Rather than moving north and east into the North Atlantic, it moved, unusually, to the west; it then churned, moving slowly in Central Pennsylvania. This is how climate affects us, present and future – except that in the future this story will be told more often.
I started this piece by noting that the forecast of Hurricane Sandy gave us the ability to plan and to reduce risk and loss. That is what climate models offer as well – opportunity.
There are individuals, organizations, corporations, and countries using this knowledge. But the U.S. national political position is to look away from this problem, to increase risk, and to squander technological and economic advantage. We, instead, rely on a series of climate case studies, paying the high cost of reacting to disaster rather than anticipating and reducing risk.
Hurricane Sandy provides an opportunity to show leadership, and the opportunity to make climate and climate change a serious national policy issue.
Dr. Richard B. Rood is a professor of meteorology at the University of Michigan's department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science, and a weather blogger at www.wunderground.com