It's been one of the most hotly debated questions this week: Is climate change driving Hurricane Irene?
"No one is going to point to Irene and say this is climate change," Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Huffington Post. "But we can say that we are seeing the fingerprint of climate change this year."
Knowlton was of course referring to the growing list of extreme weather events that have ravaged the U.S. in 2011 -- from tornadoes and flooding, to droughts and heat waves. And now millions of Americans, many of whom have never seen a real tropical storm in their lifetime, are facing a major hurricane.
Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes with “more destructive potential” have been linked to climate change as far back as the 1970s, Knowlton said. And higher wind speeds and larger quantities of rain are expected to accompany future storms, much like the one currently beating its way up the East Coast. Whether or not climate change actually affects the frequency of hurricanes is more intensely debated.
Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told HuffPost in an interview last month that global warming is also redistributing storms -- sending more on a northward trajectory. This means cities like New York and Boston are in danger, and perhaps especially so because their infrastructure wasn't been built to sustain hurricane force winds and storm surges.
That vulnerability to hurricanes is further magnified by other factors, some of which are actually more tightly linked to climate change than hurricanes themselves.
Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Weather Underground, who has been closely following American weather patterns, told HuffPost that some of the storm's worst consequences, particularly the flooding, is being exacerbated by the long-term trend of rising sea levels.
"Sea levels around New York have gone up 13 inches over last hundred years," Masters said. "What that means is that the five foot wall protecting Manhattan is one foot less able to keep water out than it was a century ago. This is going to be a kind of wake-up call for New York City: It's the first time they're going to have to evacuate from Zone A, and it's not going to be the last."
The latest Gallup poll released Friday reports that Americans considered climate change less of a problem in 2010 than in years past: only 55 percent of those polled thought that it posed a threat to them and their families. Perhaps that figure will change when 2011 is done with us.
Joshua Hersh contributed to this report