Hybrid Hell

The Climate Change Dangers of Warm Water and High Seas
The state of the universe.
Oct. 29 2012 5:06 PM

Hybrid Hell

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

A few inches of sea level rise make Hurricane Sandy even more catastrophic.

Waves crash over Winthrop Shore Drive as Hurricane Sandy comes up the coast on Monday in Winthrop, Massachusetts.
Waves crash over Winthrop, Mass. as Hurricane Sandy comes up the coast on Monday

Photograph by Darren McCollester/Getty Images.

Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research says climate change can add to the freak storm’s fury. Sea-level rise can amplify the damage from catastrophic storms.

Lisa Palmer: Most scientists seem to be reluctant to tie a single storm to climate change, but sea level rise is much more clearly climate-related and disastrous. It doesn’t take much for an extreme event with a little bit of extra sea level to overtop coastal defenses. What should we expect with Sandy?

Kevin Trenberth: You have this picture sometimes that sea level is going up at this slow rate of 3 millimeters per year. You stand there and you watch, and finally it gets up to your toes or it gets up to your ankles. You think finally, I better do something about this. That’s not the way it works. Sea level-rise happens episodically. One minute it looks benign and then a week later suddenly a storm or hurricane comes along like Sandy, and there are major waves, 20-foot waves, and major storm surge, and tremendous damage occurs.

Advertisement

LP: Is Sandy directly a result of climate change?

KT: Most of what is going on with Sandy is weather, and there is a large chance element to it, but it is all occurring in an environment where the ocean is a bit warmer, the air above the ocean is warmer and moister, and that is fuel for the storm and especially adds to the risk of heavy rainfalls and flooding.

The predominant thing is hybrid storms are chance events. They are a crap shoot. With hurricanes there is a very strong environmental component to it. Hurricanes are very dependent on the environment. Therefore, changes in the environment modify the hurricanes. There are higher sea temperatures now, more moisture in the atmosphere, and there is a risk that the storm will be more intense and possibly a little larger.

LP: What is climate change doing to this storm?

KT: The thing that the climate is doing is that the sea temperatures are higher. There is more moisture feeding into the storm. That adds to the rainfalls. The rainfalls could be 5 to 10 percent higher as a consequence of climate change. The sea level is running a little bit higher. Sea level is going up a foot a century at the current rate. Over the last 20 years sea level has gone up 2 1/4 inches. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it goes back to my first point that it gets amplified in coastal regions. There are a lot of other aspects feeding into Sandy.

LP: How does Sandy amplify rainfall and the effects of sea level rise?

KT: The sea temperatures along the coast are about 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal. About 1 degree of that you can blame on climate change, and the rest is natural variability. The warmer waters are amplifying the rainfall aspects and the nature of the storm. Plus, the water from the Atlantic is piling up on the Atlantic coast, and so even before you get to the storm surge, the sea level is already running one or two feet higher than normal because the easterly weather conditions have shaped up this way. Then you have the storm surge on top of that. With the winds and so on, this is where the forecast of more than 10 feet in the vicinity of New York City is coming from.

Even if the storm just happened to do exactly the same things it’s doing anyway, the fact that sea level went up 6 inches last century, and that sea level is somewhat higher now than it has been at any time in recent history, means that all of the coastal regions are experiencing new levels of pounding and erosion. I expect there could be some quite surprising events along some of the coast as a result of that.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 23 2014 12:16 PM Another Intervention?    Anti-ISIS airstrikes aren’t about keeping Americans safe.  
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 12:36 PM Krispy Kreme Stuffed Half a Million Calories into One Box of Doughnuts
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.