Monday, October 29, 2012

Frankenstorm: What is the role of climate change?

Sandy the Superstorm and her water vapor. 
Video via NOAA; hat tip to Andrew Revkin.


[First, check out this hurricane crisis map Google developed, complete with updated information on the storm's status and effects and even shelter location info.]

I've seen this question crop up a lot over the last few days--it's a natural one, I'd think, given promises of more frequent extreme weather events in association with human-driven global climate shifts: What is the role of climate change, if any, in Sandy the Frankenstorm, currently bearing down and flooding the US northeast after having killed dozens in the Caribbean on her way to US shores?

Lucky for people like me who couldn't begin to answer this question, people like Andrew Revkin at the New York Times have gathered the resources for us. Of course, the first take-home is the usual one: Nothing is straightforward here. As Revkin writes:
While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster, it’s just not that simple.
He gets into the "not simple" parts of things and cites some data (with links!) and then has been providing useful and insightful updates from meteorological experts. What it comes down to is, Sure, there's a littla the global climate change at play here--it's happening and it's global, so it's going to have some influence. But also at play are typical or at least not-wildly-unimaginable variations of weather patterns that just happen to be converging right now, right there. So a single weather event is just an anecdote in the climate context and doesn't necessarily stand as a reflection of an entire climate pattern. These patterns can emerge with warming or with cooling--and they have, over long time frames. Revkin writes:
But there remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms -- on time scales from decades to centuries -- to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet.
In other words, this Frankstorm really is a monster built of parts--convergence of typical weather patterns and heavily populated places, roughly pieced together to some extent by human-driven climate change and animated on live radar. But Sandy the Frankenstorm is likely no more exemplary of the dire future some think it represents than poor Frankenstein's monster himself was an exemplar of humanity.

By Emily Willingham

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily conflict with or represent those of the DXS editors or contributors.

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FYI: For updates on this sort of analysis and what's happening with Sandy in real time, the folks at Boing Boing tweeted this list of recommended people to follow on Twitter.

Update 2:30 ET: Check out this beautiful, mesmerizing, and scary wind map, made with data on surface winds from a national database.


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