Will We Be Seeing More Superstorms?

As humans push the edges of urban viability, disastrous storms could become the norm

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NOAA / NASA / REUTERS

Hurricane Sandy is seen moving toward the U.S. East Coast in this NASA handout satellite image taken on Oct. 29, 2012

The New York Times and other media are calling the events around Superstorm Sandy “once in a generation.” But whose generation are they talking about?

(MORE: In Sandy’s Wake, Photos of Historic Destruction Across the East Coast)

Perhaps, if you are in your 60s or 70s or 80s, Sandy’s destructive forces are a-once-in-your lifetime event. But younger generations — those of us in our 50s, and our children — will likely be looking at flooded coastal cities, devastated infrastructure, blown-out power and storm surges for the rest of our lives.

We’ve got to stop this “angels dancing on the head of a pin” argument about the connections between individual storms and climate change. Scientists can — and should — try to parse out each and every contributor to a storm. That’s their job. But policymakers cannot afford to do so — or to wait for definitive answers. The overall picture is dire enough. Our climate is changing, for the worse. Reliability and predictability of climate patterns? That too belongs to an older generation. We need only look at the role of warmer North Atlantic ocean temperatures in Sandy’s growth to see this.

(MORE: Climate Change Equals Hot Summers. Case Closed.)

Just last year, once-in-a-generation Irene arrived — becoming the fifth costliest hurricane in U.S. history, causing 49 deaths and 19 billion in damage. But Irene was a breeze by comparison to Sandy. And while we’ve been changing our climate, we’ve also been pushing ourselves closer to the edge of urban viability. We are digging a new subway — underground — in New York City. Are we learning nothing about what makes a coastal city vulnerable? For more than a year now, Amtrak riders between Boston and New York City have been looking out the window and watching as concrete slabs were hoisted into position — in what will surely be a vain effort to protect railbeds. A main transportation artery is literally inches from the ocean.

(MORE: Hurricane Sandy Will Put a Rickety Power Grid to the Test)

We must stop this “once in a generation” thinking. It is dangerous, misleading and irresponsible. Those who still believe that the powerful new floods, fires, droughts and storms are once-in-a-generation events are blocking the way to do something about climate chaos. Perhaps Sandy will finally blow that kind of rhetoric away.

7 comments
ruraynor
ruraynor

Why was this conversation not being had way back in 2005 when Katrina hit? 7 more years of poor climate policy and reliance on fossil fuels (which led to the Deepwater Horizon spill too). We have known about greenhouse gases and other environmental problems for generations and generations, but policy makers have ignore them for 'growth'. Well what about green growth? We could have been building high speed rail to replace inter-city flights, researching further into solar and wind power, avoiding the building of cheap, shoddy housing in unsustainable areas of suburban sprawl by developing innovative and ecologically sound housing projects.But no, the first world wants everything bigger, 'better', and RIGHT NOW. Thanks for your short sightedness, mom and dad!

MikeDovan
MikeDovan

It is impossible to predict, but highly likely as there is much evidence in geological findings that this was not the first or last. How frequent they become can simply be a matter of scale that ranges wildly. 

Mike Dovan

http://cymbalrack.com

BillDaniels
BillDaniels

At the height of the atomic tests in the Pacific (1000 atomic explosions you say?) I read many warnings that climate change would occur. A respected Nordic Institute a year or two ago said climate change is due to cycles in the sun. Have your pick.

jamesmfeinstein
jamesmfeinstein

We need to look at the debate on global warming by one specific scientific factor: In the permafrost regions of the earth, there have to be so many days where the temperature remains below freezing each year. Even one day less will cause ice shrinkage. Now we know that there always has and there always will be climate change; yet with a world population of over 7 billion, verses under one million, any climate change, whether natural or man made will bring utter disaster. Finally the decision makers over the last 60 years did not consider the consequences of forcing people to be dependent on cars. In any species, when a population got too large, nature brought it under control one way or another.

judithar321
judithar321

I don't know how anyone can deny this pattern of intense weather events and not connect it to our warming planet. As you said in another post, "We will have a lot of work to do, cleaning up a natural disaster. One named Sandy. One named Denial."

wrb
wrb

Interestingly enough, this Wikipedia article details at least 5 huricanes of greater strength than Sandy from 1815 to 1938, so a 54 year old person in 1869 would have lived through three such storms.  Hmmm, thrice in a generation, and over a hundred years ago.  Global warming?  Maybe.  Man's fault?  I remain unconvinced.  Earth has always had dynamic weather.  When you build a house 100 feet from the surf, you're asking for trouble, and I enjoy the coast as much (or more) than anyone.  One last thought:  We can probably adapts to and live through a warming trend, but not a cooling trend. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1938_New_England_hurricane