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August 01, 2014
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It’s the weather … It’s the climate


REGION — Scientists have been predicting for years that as our world heats up, we can expect more intense weather phenomena more frequently. So can we blame climate change for Hurricane Sandy?

“We can’t say for certain that Sandy is a result of climate change,” Jessica Rennells, a climatologist at the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, said on Monday. “There is a natural variability with the weather.”

But then she added, “With climate change, we do expect to see more extreme weather events.” We won’t see events like Hurricane Sandy every year, she said, but ocean waters definitely are warming and that brings extra energy to coastal storms. Plus the air is warmer, and warmer air can hold more moisture.

Dave Nicosia, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Binghamton, NY, said much the same. “You can’t link one storm to climate change.” But then he, too, added that sea surface temperatures are warmer than normal right now and that may explain why Sandy got stronger out over the Atlantic. With a warmer ocean, we are likely to see stronger, longer storms along the coast, he said.

The bottom line for Nicosia is that climate change does not cause a hurricane to form out over the ocean between Africa and the Americas, but climate change may well be linked to the more extreme weather we’re seeing.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, weighed in on the question, too. “One thing scientists do know,” he said, “is that there’s a strong correlation between warm years and strong hurricanes, and 2012 was definitely a warm year.”

And then he repeated what climatologist Rennells and meteorologist Nicosia said. “Ocean temperatures are rising, and hurricanes draw strength from ocean warmth. Sea surface temperatures in the central Atlantic right now are about five degrees warmer than normal.”

“There’s plenty of scientific evidence that the biggest hurricanes are getting bigger,” he continued, adding that a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that wind speeds of Atlantic hurricanes have doubled in the last 30 years. “This hurricane,” he concluded, “fits the trend of a warming planet.”

The insurance industry is plenty interested in the question, too, concerned that if climate change is involved, bigger, more expensive storms will become more frequent.

In a recent study done for insurance underwriters, the firm Munich RE said that, “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.… Climate change particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.” That means hurricanes.