Storms in the 21st Century: Tracking Sandy

Storms in the 21st Century: Tracking Sandy

Hurricane Sandy

Climate scientists warned us several years ago that increasing global warming would set off a chain reaction of bad weather called a negative feedback loop – defined as, “The worse it gets, the worse it gets.”

Hurricane Sandy was a good example of what happens when business, industry and even the average citizen ignore the warnings of experts like NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen.

Hansen, who has been sending out alarming messages – first to the Senate, and more recently to everyone – for almost a quarter of a century announced in August that he and his colleagues had confirmed, “…a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers.”

In Hansen’s own words, the database of six decades of global temperatures isn’t so much a climate model or a prediction but instead real-time observations of high temperatures and even worse weather events. Coming from a climate scientist, this kind of warning is like an airplane pilot saying, “Hang on to your hats, we’re in for a bumpy ride!”

Bumpy is putting it mildly. But Sandy is only one storm (which fortunately did not claim a lot of lives like the Indonesian quake and tsunami).

Speaking of that, let’s run down a timeline of 21st century storms, beginning with a 2003 deadly heat wave in Europe that left 10,000 dead in Paris alone. That was also the year when tornados, mostly confined to America’s Heartland, wreaked havoc between May 3 and May 11, a period now referred to by Midwesterners as “nine days in May”.

Even though it wasn’t in the U.S., the Indonesian earthquake of 2004 was charted almost off the scale at 9.1. The tsunami that followed destroyed what little the earthquake had left behind. In all, 5,800 people died or were noted as missing, and the cost of rebuilding was a hefty $3 billion.

Katrina, which is remembered as the most devastating U.S. hurricane of the century, occurred on August 29 of 2005. Killing 1,836 and leaving behind $81.2 billion in wreckage (a good portion of which has never been repaired or replaced), Hurricane Katrina spared some homes and historic places, but took the heart right out of Old New Orleans.

After a relatively quiet two years, during which a cyclone in Bangladesh killed 3,000 and left 800,000 displaced – events that repeated like mirror images in Myanmar and the U.S. Midwest – along came Haiti’s Hurricane Hanna. The alliteration is awesome, but most people forget that what almost destroyed Haiti in 2008 were consecutive waves of hurricanes; Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike.

That year, 2008, is also the backdrop for Mississippi River floods that destroyed many of the small cities and towns along its banks as it moved south from Rock Island, Illinois to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. In addition, the collapse of levees in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines (both in Iowa) forced extensive evacuation.

The storms of 2009 culminated in December with a massive snowstorm along the U.S. East Coast. People who had never, or seldom, seen snow saw more than they wanted (except the kids, who loved the once-in-a-lifetime snowball fights and snowman-building).

This event was repeated in 2010, to a slightly lesser degree. But it was no longer possible to call the freak blizzards once-in-a-lifetime events, because it was now happening every year.

The Haiti earthquake of 2010 was what one scientist, quoted in the UK’s Independent (newspaper) described as a peripheral effect of global warming. That is, torrential rain on badly deforested slopes causes a lot of landslides. This leaves areas of earth’s surface which are suddenly lighter, inviting the release of stress (via earthquakes) and movement along faults.

The year 2011 saw such dreadful tornadoes across the South and up the Eastern seaboard that those who had formerly ridden out storms in cellars or on the main floor behind storm-shielded windows voluntarily evacuated. In spite of that, more than 550 people died and the damage ran to $28 billion.

And we all remember this year for the drought that spread relentlessly across two-thirds of the nation, taking out crops and hopes from Vermont in the east to parts of California and Oregon in the west, and from portions of Minnesota in the North to Texas in the south.

Oh, and don’t forget Hurricane Sandy, with its 900-mile-wide storm path. That is the equivalent of traveling from Miami, Florida to about Charlottesville, Virginia. Sandy, which weather experts suggested might just be the storm of the century, lost momentum as it approached landfall and ran up against a cold front coming down from Canada. We can be thankful for that.

In fact, there are no more storms of the century. There are not even storms of the decade. The same deadly destructive storm patterns repeat almost every year now, in varying degrees of severity. Hansen, in his latest sally, has focused on the melting ice sheets, which he says could raise sea levels “several meters” (i.e., nine feet) in a single year.

Do we need flooded homes, parched and dying corn fields, and the floor of the New York stock exchange under three feet of water to realize we must act soon, or never at all?

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