Frankenstorm: Hurricane Sandy an Outgrowth of Global Warming’s Extreme Weather?

October 29, 2012

Forecasters say Hurricane Sandy is a rare hybrid superstorm created by an Arctic jet stream from the north wrapping itself around a tropical storm from the south. Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, warns that such a "Frankenstorm," as it is called, is an outgrowth of the extreme weather changes caused by global warming. "When you do heat the oceans up more, you extend the length of hurricane season," Masters says. "There’s been ample evidence over the last decade or so that hurricane season is getting longer — starts earlier, ends later. You’re more likely to get these sort of late October storms now, and you’re more likely to have this sort of situation where a late October storm meets up with a regular winter low-pressure system and gives us this ridiculous combination of a nor’easter and a hurricane that comes ashore, bringing all kinds of destructive effects." We’re also joined by climate scientist Greg Jones from Southern Oregon University.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Medford, Oregon, at Southern Oregon Public Television, but the story today is on the East Coast, as we continue our coverage of Hurricane Sandy, a massive storm that could impact up to 50 million people from the Carolinas to Boston. New York and other cities have shut down schools and transit systems. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been evacuated. Millions could lose power over the next day.

We are continuing here in Ashland, Oregon, with Greg Jones, climate scientist, professor of environmental studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. And joining us by Democracy Now! video stream is Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground, which was just bought by Weather Channel.

Jeff Masters, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk—explain what is happening right now on the East Coast.

JEFF MASTERS: We’ve got a Caribbean hurricane that formed last week, moved northwards through the Bahamas. It’s now offshore the coast of Virginia. It’s maintained its hurricane strength. It’s got 85-mile-per-hour winds, and it’s starting to accelerate towards the coast now, as a wintertime low-pressure system starts to suck it in. The scale of this storm is just remarkable. The U.S. has never seen this sort of a large storm where you’ve got winds that are tropical-storm force, about 900 miles in diameter, and the radius of 12-foot seas surrounding the storm is more than 500 miles. So, over a 1,100-mile-diameter area of 12-foot-high waves—just a massive storm. It really deserves the label "superstorm."

AMY GOODMAN: What is the death toll so far?

JEFF MASTERS: Last I saw was about 65. Eleven of those were in Cuba, which is very good about their disaster preparedness. That’s an unusually high death toll for them. And then, the majority of the deaths were in Haiti, where they don’t have as good a public sort of response system because of all the deforestation that’s gone on there and the poverty and, of course, the earthquake of two years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of the preparations for this storm?

JEFF MASTERS: In the U.S., I think people are getting the message. Whether they act on it or not, I don’t know. This part of the world where it’s getting hit doesn’t have a lot of storm experience. We did have Hurricane Irene last year, but that fizzled out a little bit right before landfall, and we didn’t get as high a storm surge as we were expecting. Storm surge is the most dangerous part of a hurricane, typically, and it’s going ashore in an area that doesn’t have much experience with this sort of event. And this will be a one-in-200- or one-in-100-year sort of event for them. There’s already record storm surge flooding occurring along the shore of New Jersey, and it’s going to get much worse tonight when the high tide comes in.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you compare this hurricane to Sandy—Sandy to Irene?

JEFF MASTERS: Sure. Hurricane Irene brought about a 9.5-foot storm tide to New York City; Sandy is expected to bring a foot or two higher than that, which potentially will flood the subway system in New York City, so a higher storm surge.

As far as the rains go, Irene had higher rains. This storm is going to have about 30 percent less rainfall, and you’re not going to see the kind of catastrophic rainfall flooding damage that we saw with Irene, which amounted to something like $16 billion. And in part that’s because the soils are drier and rivers are lower right now; we’ve been in a little bit of a drought condition in the Northeast. So the rains aren’t going to be that big of an issue.

The winds, however, are going to be a huge issue, because they’re going to affect a massive amount of coastline. Again, over a 500-mile stretch of coast is going to see winds in excess of probably 50 miles per hour. With the trees still with their leaves on them, you’re going to see a lot of tree damage, a lot of power failures. I expect over 10 million people will suffer power failures during this storm.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about climate change and whether it makes this storm more destructive?

JEFF MASTERS: Whenever you add more heat to the oceans, you’ve got more energy for destruction. And hurricanes are heat engines. They pull heat out of the ocean, convert it to the kinetic energy of their winds. So, the approximately one-degree-Fahrenheit warming of the oceans we’ve experienced over the past century does directly increase the winds of hurricanes. And that’s of concern because just if you’ve got a 5 percent increase in hurricane winds, that doesn’t translate to a 5 percent increase in damage. The damage of the wind goes by some power, like a second or third power. So a 5 percent increase in the winds causes a much higher degree of wind damage. So that’s the main thing, as far as heat in the oceans goes, about the effect on hurricanes.

The other thing to think about is, when you do heat the oceans up more, you extend the length of hurricane season. And there’s been ample evidence over the last decade or so that hurricane season is getting longer—starts earlier, ends later. You’re more likely to get these sort of late October storms now, and you’re more likely to have this sort of situation where a late October storm meets up with a regular winter low-pressure system and gives us this ridiculous combination of a nor’easter and a hurricane that comes ashore, bringing all kinds of destructive effects.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you disappointed, Jeff Masters, that in the three presidential debates, that tens of millions of people were watching, the issue of climate change did not arise?

JEFF MASTERS: Yeah, absolutely. Climate change has become the new Voldemort of our times, that which cannot be named. And it’s ridiculous that we can’t talk about a subject that’s directly influencing our lives now and will continue to do so even more strongly in the future. I see superstorm Sandy here as kind of a wake-up call coming the week before the election. "Hey, America, hey, politicians, pay attention to this." We’re experiencing an unusual number of very rare meteorological events, and they’re probably not all due to just random variations in the weather. We do expect extreme events of this nature to increase in the future, and we should be paying attention to the fact that we’ve had a very large number of these billion-dollar sorts of disasters in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering, Greg Jones, as a climate scientist here at the Southern Oregon University in Ashland, if you find the same kind of silence around the issue of climate change?

GREG JONES: Sure. You know, right now it’s really sad to see all of our political entities not approaching this in some way, shape or form. It’s not an electable issue, not until the public sees it to be important enough to demand something more from both parties. It’s really unfortunate. I see it in my students, as well. There’s some apathy relative to both the weather and climate. Until the types of damage that a hurricane like this system can bring, you know, I don’t think that people wake up enough and see those kind of issues as being directly tied to what we do in the fossil fuel industry and in terms of changing the climate, changing the surface of the earth and the oceans. Those are all very problematic issues, and the parties just aren’t there with it.

AMY GOODMAN: You look at effect of climate change on wineries here on the West Coast?

GREG JONES: Well, I’m a—I’ve been studying climate and how it affects agricultural crops for years. My main area of study is—is looking at how climate influences growing grapes and making wine. Now, it’s a very important issue, but it’s very frivolous compared to the—you know, the hurricane that’s bearing down on the East Coast right now. But the issue is, is that all crops have very fine climate niches relative to their surroundings, and small changes in climate can completely change coffee, pineapples, chocolate, wine, any of these types of very specialized crops that we grow. Plus, it also has an issue for broad-based crops. Whether or not those broad-based crops like corn and soybeans and wheat can produce consistently in a changing climate is a big question for the future.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s a very serious issue when you’re talking about a term that a lot of people don’t hear about in the United States, "climate refugees" —


AMY GOODMAN: —when food becomes scarce because of climate change.

GREG JONES: Sure, and we have some serious issues with dealing with this. I mean, many of our crops—you take rice grown in Southeast Asia, has been feeding the largest population on earth. Small changes in monsoon rainfalls can bring about a, you know, disaster. And so, just—just small changes, I think, is really very important as we look at these crop systems. Humans, in general, as we talk about what we do daily and weekly and seasonally, you know, small changes in climate don’t mean very much to us. But when they impact our food systems and how they’re produced, that’s where we have real problems.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Jeff Masters, about geoengineering, also, as well, Greg Jones. Naomi Klein had a fascinating piece in the New York Times yesterday called "Geoengineering: Testing the Waters," where she talked about being on British Columbia’s shoreline, the Sunshine Coast, and seeing orcas in the water, killer whales, and being shocked by this extremely rare visit. And she said, "The possibility [that] the sighting may have resulted from something less serendipitous did not occur to me until two weeks ago, when I read reports of a bizarre ocean experiment off the islands of Haida Gwaii, several hundred miles from where we spotted the orcas swimming.

"There, an American entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat; the plan [was] to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change."

And she goes on to say, "Mr. George is one of a growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming. In addition to Mr. George’s scheme to fertilize the ocean with iron, other geoengineering strategies under consideration include pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to imitate the cooling effects of a major volcanic eruption and ‘brightening’ clouds so they reflect more of the sun’s rays back to space."

And she goes on to say that "The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides. [And] multiple simulations have predicted that mimicking the effects of a volcano would interfere with monsoons in Asia and Africa, potentially threatening water and food security for billions of people."

Jeff Masters, your response? And then Greg Jones.

JEFF MASTERS: It’s a high-risk sort of thing, and it’s quite controversial. We don’t know how we’re affecting the climate now, so you add another element of risk by deliberately modifying it. And we should definitely do a lot more study before we do any sort of real implementation of a geoengineering scheme. I do think we should study it. And we may get desperate enough that we’ll have to do it. I call geoengineering a bad idea whose time may come. When you’re down two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, sometimes you’ve got to throw deep. I mean, it’s a terrible gamble, and it will cause unexpected effects, including drought, shift of rainfall patterns. But if civilization itself is potentially going to collapse because of what we’re doing to the climate, maybe we need to consider these sorts of things—not in the near future, but down the road a few decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein asks, "What are the real solutions to climate change?" She says, "Wouldn’t it be better to change our behavior—to reduce our use of fossil fuels—before we begin fiddling with the planet’s basic life-support systems?" Greg Jones?

GREG JONES: Well, I mean, Jeff is correct here. I think these are measures that we’re looking at because we haven’t approached it maybe in the best possible way of just dealing with our usage of fuel. But geoengineering, there is a tremendous number of different potentials there. The problem, typically, is scaling it up to something that is going to be effective at the global scale, that doesn’t cause any other ramifications into whatever system it is, whether it’s the oceans or the atmosphere or the surface of the earth. We need to do the studies, I think, to find out what is going to be the most effective strategies in geoengineering. But it’s a real challenge to [inaudible] these types of research projects when we—when we know that the outcomes probably aren’t scalable to the global scale.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’re going to go to Haiti. I want to thank you, Greg Jones, for being with us, climate scientist at Southern Oregon University. Also, I want to thank Jeff Masters for being with us from Michigan, from Ann Arbor. Jeff Masters runs Weather Underground, which was just bought by Weather Channel. We’ll continue to follow what is taking place on the East Coast and deal with the issue of climate change.

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard honored Goodman with the 2014 I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also the first journalist to receive the Right Livelihood Award, widely known as the 'Alternative Nobel Prize' for “developing an innovative model of truly independent grassroots political journalism that brings to millions of people the alternative voices that are often excluded by the mainstream media.” She is the first co-recipient of the Park Center for Independent Media’s Izzy Award, named for the great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone, and was later selected for induction into the Park Center’s I.F. Stone Hall of Fame. The Independent of Londoncalled Amy Goodman and Democracy Now! “an inspiration.”

Tags: climate change, extreme weather, hurricanes