New York, New York

Coincidentally I have been reading about the seamier side of New York City just lately: Alphaville.

The cocky and often triumphant confrontations with bad guys make "Alphaville" a strangely entertaining read. But the book is also a reminder of how far into danger and degradation New York fell in the late 20th century. Today New York is the safest major city in America. Yet the homicide rate so far this year is 15% higher than last, and the numbers for rape and robbery are rising, too. The watchword for urban safety, as for so much else, is eternal vigilance. We never want to return to the bad old days—which aren’t all that old.

That at least has made me more aware of the geography of the city, so recent reports have thus meant more to me.  I have never been there. I do know a few people who are there now. Here are two.

  • Philip Costello, a friend, and flatmate a couple of times in the 80s and 90s. “To all those who may be concerned. No damage, leaks or flooding at my home, but am affected by the big power outage that is affecting a large part of Manhattan. Have fled to the Upper West side to a friends apartment till power is restored.”
  • Jeremy Heimans – former SBHS student and all-round amazing internet person – #11 of the Top 100 Creative people in Business 2012, I see. “Sadly, #sandy is just the new normal. We’re going to face this more often & with growing severity for the rest of our lives. #climatechange” – Jeremy on Twitter four hours ago.

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Not a million miles from where Philip normally lives these days:

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There could of course for some be a “better” explanation. Jeremy tweeted on 27 October: “At a gay wedding in Garrison, NY and guess what has just appeared in the sky? A rainbow.” See? Winking smile 

But seriously… There actually is a tinfoil hatted preacher saying just that! When will they ever learn? No sane person will believe him, of course.

"God is systematically destroying America," McTernan writes. "Just look at what has happened this year."

Calling Sandy "the most powerful hurricane on record" that "could do catastrophic damage to the entire Northeast," McTernan adds, "Obama is 100 percent behind the Muslim Brotherhood which has vowed to destroy Israel and take Jerusalem. Both candidates are pro-homosexual and are behind the homosexual agenda. America is under political judgment and the church does not know it!"

Is it bad taste to mention that climate change may have played a clear part in the recent events? Normally I am very wary of linking specific events to climate change – the danger of that should be obvious. However, in this case I would ask you to consider:

1. The New Yorker 29 October 2012.

As with any particular “weather-related loss event,” it’s impossible to attribute Sandy to climate change. However, it is possible to say that the storm fits the general pattern in North America, and indeed around the world, toward more extreme weather, a pattern that, increasingly, can be attributed to climate change. Just a few weeks before the Munich Re report appeared, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York, published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the apparent increase in extreme heat waves. Extreme summertime heat, which just a few decades ago affected much less than one per cent of the earth’s surface, “now typically covers about 10% of the land area,” the paper observed. “It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies”—i.e., heat waves—“such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.” It is worth noting that one of several forces fuelling Sandy is much-higher-than-average sea-surface temperatures along the East Coast.

2. The Munich Re report of 17 October 2012

Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America. The study shows a nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America for the past three decades, compared with an increase factor of 4 in Asia, 2.5 in Africa, 2 in Europe and 1.5 in South America. Anthropogenic climate change is believed to contribute to this trend, though it influences various perils in different ways. Climate change particularly affects formation of heat-waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity. The view that weather extremes are becoming more frequent and intense in various regions due to global warming is in keeping with current scientific findings, as set out in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as well as in the special report on weather extremes and disasters (SREX). Up to now, however, the increasing losses caused by weather related natural catastrophes have been primarily driven by socio-economic factors, such as population growth, urban sprawl and increasing wealth.

Among many other risk insights the study now provides new evidence for the emerging impact of climate change. For thunderstorm-related losses the analysis reveals increasing volatility and a significant long-term upward trend in the normalized figures over the last 40 years. These figures have been adjusted to account for factors such as increasing values, population growth and inflation. A detailed analysis of the time series indicates that the observed changes closely match the pattern of change in meteorological conditions necessary for the formation of large thunderstorm cells. Thus it is quite probable that changing climate conditions are the drivers. The climatic changes detected are in line with the modelled changes due to human-made climate change.

The Head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research unit, Prof. Peter Höppe, commented: "In all likelihood, we have to regard this finding as an initial climate-change footprint in our US loss data from the last four decades. Previously, there had not been such a strong chain of evidence. If the first effects of climate change are already perceptible, all alerts and measures against it have become even more pressing.” Höppe continued that even without changing hazard conditions, increases in population, built-up areas and increasing values, particularly in hazard-prone regions, need to be on Munich Re’s risk radar. All stakeholders should collaborate and close ranks to support improved adaptation. In addition, climate change mitigation measures should be supported to limit global warming in the long term to a still manageable level. “As North America is particularly exposed to all kinds of weather risks, it especially would benefit from this”, added Höppe…

3. Paul McGeogh, Leviathan: how Sandy links to a warming planet.

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4. The Midweek Wonk: What We Know About Sandy and Climate.

October 29 lecture by GeoScientist Christian Shorey at the Colorado School of Mines, describing the most current knowns and unknowns about Sandy in the context of climate change. 15 minutes long, good summary for anyone that needs an instant cliffnotes primer.

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5. And for sheer lunacy: “An endlessly rich source of denialist paranoia and craziness, Infowars, now suggest that President Obama is using secret technology to direct Hurricane Sandy up the East Coast…”

6. NY Governor  Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg.

NEW YORK — A day after New York City experienced its worst storm surges in recorded history, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city may need to respond to climate change with steps like storm barriers. Such protections would be extremely costly, but climate change experts said Hurricane Sandy provided a first glimpse of the challenges all coastal areas will face as sea levels rise and extreme weather events become more frequent.

Cuomo said on Tuesday that he told President Barack Obama it seemed like "we have a 100-year flood every two years now."

"These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing,” he said.

Of protections like levees in Lower Manhattan, Cuomo said, "It is something we’re going to have to start thinking about … The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level."

"I don’t know how practical it is to put gates on PATH tubes and subway tunnels," Bloomberg said in a separate press conference. "What is clear is that the storms we’ve experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before. Whether that’s global warming or what, I don’t know, but we’ll have to address those issues."

Although levees or other storm surge barriers might sound like fantasy to some, there are proposals on the table for introducing barriers across New York’s harbor or in the East River. Implementing them would cost at least billions of dollars — but infrastructure experts said the time to prepare for climate change is now, not after disasters.

Klaus Jacob, a climate expert at Columbia University, warned months ago that a major flood could result in $58 billion in economic damages from a large storm surge. An event on something like that scale appears to have come to pass….

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7.  Stephan Lewandowsky, Superstorm Sandy and the climate debate surge.

Please consider.

Our thoughts are with all in that vast area of the US North-East.

Later

Now we are seeing the extent of the damage: so terrible. Here are some posts I have encountered after writing this morning.

eureka8. 2012 SkS News Bulletin #1: Hurricane Sandy & Climate Change: “This is a round-up of selected news articles and blog posts about Hurricane Sandy, its impacts on North America, and its relationship to climate change. This bulletin supplements the regular SkS weekly News Round-Up which is posted on Saturday of each week.”

9. Peter Sinclair, The World’s Biggest Metaphor just Came Ashore.

10. Christopher Mims, How global warming helped transform Sandy from a hurricane into a Frankenstorm. Mims “is a former editor at Seed, Scientific American, Technology Review, Grist and Smithsonian, and in those roles launched blogs, redesigns, video series and other half-forgotten but otherwise influential experiments in new media. As a freelancer with the news metabolism of a hummingbird, he spent a decade writing news and analysis for the aforementioned, as well as BBC, Wired, Nature and the like.”

And an amusing post on Facebook from Philip Costello:

It’s the middle of a hurricane and when I look out the window, what do I see? A man jogging up the middle of 7th avenue wearing only his shoes and underwear!

1 November

11. Kevin Trenberth, Opinion: Super Storm Sandy, The Scientist.

…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…

…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.

12. Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating, Don’t forget the storm’s other victims.

eureka13. Skeptical Science, Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Connection.

Extreme Weather on Steroids

The bottom line is that while global warming did not cause Hurricane Sandy, it did contribute to the "Frankenstorm" at least by causing higher sea levels (and thus bigger storm surges and flooding) and warmer sea surface temperatures (and thus probably a stronger hurricane), and there are a few other human influences on the climate which may also have contributed to the damage caused by the storm.

14. Skeptical Science: debunking “Hurricane Sandy had nothing to do with global warming”.

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