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Rebecca Anderson

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The Frankenstorm and Climate Silence

Posted: 10/31/2012 12:26 pm

What is a Frankenstorm?

A monstrous concoction of part-hurricane, part-nor'easter currently slamming itself against the eastern seaboard to the detriment of 60 million people.

What is climate silence?

The lamentable fact that neither Obama nor Romney mentioned a single word about climate change during the presidential debates or during their campaigns.

What do they have in common?

At the moment, nothing. But just maybe, that might change over the next few days. Perhaps the evacuation of over 375,000 people from New York, a "life-threatening" storm surge and the biggest storm ever to hit the east coast may be enough to warrant the candidates to finally break their silence on climate change.

Not that this will be easy to do. The linkage between climate change and this Frankenstorm isn't as straightforward as, say, a heat wave. There are several ways that climate change factors in, in large part because this crazy storm itself is so multi-faceted.

To start with: Yes, climate change plays a role. Our world is one that is warmed up and altered by the millions of pounds of extra carbon in our atmosphere, put there by people. There's no way that can't have some sort of impact. So it's not a question of IF climate change is a factor, but instead HOW MUCH.

Let's take a look:

#1: Sea level rise.

Higher sea levels make the flooding from storms like this that much worse. The Atlantic coast of the U.S. is already a sea level rise hot-spot, with rates of 3-4 times the global average. Some of the entrances to New York's subway are only 7 feet above sea level; the 13-foot storm surge from Sandy is devastating. Seven subway tunnels under the East River have been flooded, making this the worst disaster the subway has experienced in its 108-year history.

#2: Warmer oceans, warmer air.

Warmer air holds more moisture. The Earth now has 4 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere on average than in 1970. This means there's more moisture up there to fuel a hurricane such as Sandy. It's the warmer oceans that feed that extra moisture into the atmosphere. Warmer ocean temperatures themselves are also a key ingredient in forming a hurricane. Ocean temperatures have been increasing over the last century and hurricanes have been increasing right along with them.

#3: Melting Arctic sea ice.

The link between the record-low Arctic sea ice in September and Frankenstorm Sandy falls into the category "still under investigation." The science here is new and exciting. Less Arctic sea ice means more open (dark-colored) water that can absorb sunlight and warm up. This extra heat then gets released back to the atmosphere when sea ice refreezes in the fall, *somehow* making the Jet Stream more wavy, bringing more Arctic air down towards the U.S. and making for bigger storms. It's the "how" in "somehow" that's still under investigation.

There is definitely a strong current of cold air coming down from the Arctic now that has pushed Hurricane Sandy westward, directly onto the Atlantic seaboard. That much is clear. How much this is the result of the record-low sea ice this fall is less clear. Jennifer Francis, author of the study on this sea ice-big storm connection, says on the NY Times DotEarth blog: "... the situation at hand is completely consistent with what I'd expect to see happen more often as a result of unabated warming..."

What does all this mean for everyone currently suffering under this Frankstorm's wrath? I'm not going to say we should be expecting lots more of these storms in the future. There are plenty of coincidences here that don't involve climate change at all: the convergence with a storm system from the west and the full moon making for an extra high tide are two of the worst.

Be that as it may, Frankenstorm Sandy is a beast. Our thoughts go out to all those along the east coast in her 1000-mile wide path, including ACE's many teachers and students affected by the storm. One of them, Azemina Lucevic, ACE's Ambassador at Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn tells us:

Fortunately I've been experiencing the perks of Zone C but I've been hearing many tragic stories from surrounding neighborhoods and boroughs... In fact I'm currently providing a safe shelter for my aunt's family whose whole basement has been entirely flooded. A lot of material loss, but we're grateful for everyone's safety.

It's for students like Azemina that we're working to break the climate silence and move towards solutions.

 

Follow Rebecca Anderson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/climateed

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