Superstorm Sandy was utterly horrific. Before it reached the US it was already on a destructive rampage, affecting five million people in the Caribbean and leaving 72 people dead. Had it stopped there though, it’s hard to imagine that Sandy’s longevity in the media would have persisted more than a few days. Likely, the words ‘climate change’ would hardly have been uttered in discussions about the storm.
But that changed, and it changed quickly when Sandy hit the US’ North East. While the destruction was wide spread, it was the images of a ravaged New York and New Jersey that left an eerie feeling that was hard to shake. Suddenly ‘climate change’ entered the discussion.
It’s not surprising. A study by the Yale Project on Climate Communications published last summer, found that Americans were linking the hotter than normal temperatures this past year to climate change. While climate-denying advocacy campaigns seem to have little influence on public opinion regarding climate change, the study found that a bout of weird weather can make a skeptic more likely to believe.
I can only presume then that Sandy turned many skeptics into believers.
And while there is debate as to whether Sandy was caused by global warming, there does seem to be widespread agreement that the storm was made worse by global warming. According to sea-level expert Ben Strauss of Climate Central, the sea level in the New York harbor is 15 inches higher now than it was in 1880. Strauss estimates that climate change, which caused sea-level rise through the melting of land-based ice and through thermal expansion of warm ocean water, is responsible for eight of those inches.
Eight inches doesn’t sound like much, but apparently their impact was significant. Using Climate Central’s Surging Seas tool, 6,000 more people were impacted for each additional inch of sea-level rise. “An inch or two could be enough to get over a home’s threshold and down into the basement, or make it into one more subway entrance,” Strauss explains.
Finally, basic physics tells us that those extra inches would have sped up the flow of water – water higher above the surface experiences less friction and so flows faster. In the case of a storm surge, extra speed means a greater area is affected before the water recedes.
None of this is to say climate change didn’t influence whether or not Sandy would have happened in the first place, but that at the very least, it made the impact worse than it otherwise would have been. “There is 100 percent certainty that sea-level rise made this worse,” says Strauss. “Period.”
In a storm that affected so many people it’s hard to find a silver lining. But perhaps the legacy of the 2012 superstorm will be a turning point, one in which government, businesses and former skeptics started to take climate change seriously.