Adding Up Superstorm Sandy

Posted on November 29, 2012

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Superstorm Sandy shows how climate change can add up.

Climate change warms the oceans, evaporates more water vapour and raises the air temperature.  All these conditions separately and together power stronger storms and also stronger storm surges, and the increase in water vapour increases the amount of precipitation that the storms drop.

Climate change also melts polar ice sheets and the additional heat of climate change expands the water in the oceans, together bringing about sea level rise.  Add climate change-boosted storm surges to a climate change-boosted sea level rise and you get a Jersey shore and Manhattan disaster.  Now rain on it.

As climate change continues to add up—we’ve had 0.8oC of warming but appear to be on a trajectory for 4oC—expect many more superstorms like Sandy.  In the course of a decade or two events like Sandy will be so common that we’ll leave out the “super,” I suspect, and just call them storms.

And, to compound the math, expect more sea level rise as well.

A recent study in the journal Science examined satellite data for the last twenty years to arrive at some hard figures about global ice sheet loss.  According to the study, since 1992, Greenland has lost 152 billion tons of ice a year, West Antarctica has lost 65 billion tons a year and the Antarctic Peninsula has lost 20 billion tons a year.  Only East Antarctica—as predicted by climate models—has bucked the trend, gaining 14 billion tons a year.

Also, and quite relevantly, the study shows that ice melt and ice sheet loss is accelerating.  Greenland is losing ice five times faster now than it was in 1992.  Sea level rise is consequently accelerating as well.  A recent study in Environment Research Letters confirms sea levels rise at 3.2 millimeters a year, a rate 60% faster than the latest estimate from the IPCC.

So along with more superstorms like Sandy, expect continuing sea level rise to make the impact of these Super Sandys increasingly worse.

Obviously, the mathematics of climate change is not in our favour.  And getting worse all the time.  With time itself running out.

I think it’s time we started weighing the cost of doing nothing—disaster—against the cost of changing our ways.

Let’s see, take the bus or destroy the planet?  Continue to burn fossil fuels or tap into boundless free solar energy?  Bring in a carbon tax or invite in an unending stream of Superstorm Sandys?

Decisions, decisions.

See Polar Ice Sheets Shrinking Worldwide, Study Confirms – National Geographic