News Column

Hurricane Sandy a Taste of Things to Come?

Nov. 1, 2012

Tamara Dietrich, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

A superstorm brushed past Virginia to slam into major cities in the Northeast on Monday, swallowing lower Manhattan, scouring the Jersey Shore and smashing the famed Atlantic City boardwalk to bits. It left coastal neighborhoods flooded or in flames, millions without power and damage in the billions.

Hurricane Sandy might not be a direct result of global warming, local scientists say, but as the climate changes and sea levels rise, it's likely a taste of things to come.

"I don't think you can actually say Sandy was caused by climate change at this point," said Bruce Wielicki, global warming expert at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. "It may be an example of -- as sea level rise increases, as hurricanes (intensify) -- the types of impacts we're going to be facing."

Meteorologist Jeff Orrock said Sandy was an "extremely rare" massive superstorm fit for the history books.

"It'll be researched," said Orrock, with the National Weather Service in Wakefield. "It'll be (discussed) in the academic research community over the next decade or more, it's so unique."

Even early on, he said, Sandy took on a "duality" of structure -- the massive wind field of a nor'easter packing the punch of a hurricane. It was so huge, he said, that wind speeds hit 60 mph along the Carolina coast, while the center of the hurricane was still off Daytona Beach, Fla.

A more typical hurricane taking Sandy's same track up the Atlantic, he said, would have caused "a little bit of wind and some rip currents" along Virginia's coast.

On Monday, local communities sustained flooding in low-lying areas and damaging winds.

A more typical hurricane also would have veered northeast eventually and swung out over the Atlantic or up toward Nova Scotia.

Instead, Sandy hit a wall of high pressure from over Greenland that it couldn't barrel through, Orrock said. It was shoved west, where a deep trough of low pressure out of the Midwest drew it onward.

As soon as Sandy turned toward New Jersey, he said, it accelerated to something fierce.

"That was quite a storm, wasn't it?" said John Boon, professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point and an expert in sea level rise.

"Hurricanes do go that far north, and they do considerable damage and have the potential to do so," Boon said. "And that will go up with time as sea levels continue to rise."

What struck him about Sandy, he said, were reports and images of a flooded-out Manhattan subway system and New York Stock Exchange.

"They're in low-lying areas and already at risk of flooding," Boon said. "And imagine how that's going to zoom forward to the year 2050. And if sea level continues to rise at a faster and faster rate, that would certainly seem to point out a definite problem."

U.S. Geological Survey scientists call the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to north of Boston a global "hot spot" for rising seas, and nowhere are they rising faster than off Virginia. Boon's research confirms the acceleration is occurring at unprecedented rates in Hampton Roads.

Scientists are still trying to understand the effect global warming will have on hurricanes, said Wielicki, although some project they may be fewer in future, but pack more of a punch.

"As far as climate change," he said of Sandy, "we can use it to realize how vulnerable we are to sea level rise."

The take-aways from Sandy are sobering, the experts said. Communities in coastal states should factor in serious weather events and their consequences as they build or rebuild, although the economics of adapting to a changing climate may seem overwhelming.

Luckily, said Orrock, forecasting storms has gotten "amazingly accurate." What's needed now is a similar ability to forecast inundations, or how far inland floodwater or storm surges may reach.

Even then, he said, it's hard to brace for a storm of Sandy's magnitude.

"I've been through a fair number of disasters," said Orrock. "As you go further up the scale, you're going beyond what can even be prepared for."

A poll released last week by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicates 70 percent of Americans now say they believe global warming is real, researchers said. That's up from 57 percent just two years ago.

Researchers said the record number of extreme weather events around the world, including violent storms, could be convincing Americans to take global warming more seriously.

"I would hope so," said Boon. "We would hate to think we've got to have some hard lessons to bring us around. If we don't learn from this one, I don't know what to say."



Source: (c)2012 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) Distributed by MCT Information Services