Hurricane Sandy: Isolated Weather, or Climate Change?

“It didn’t used to be this way.”

Around New York, it seems everyone’s saying it. Something basic has changed, and it’s not good. Drivers searching in vain for an open gas station say it. Hotel guests shivering in blacked-out guestrooms say it. So do grandmothers camping out in their children’s apartments for a hot shower and a warm place to sleep. And so do professionals locked out of their darkened New York City offices.

It seems Hurricane Sandy has convinced the average New Yorker that something weird is going on. With the last few years’ tornadoes, freak snow storms, spring droughts and three consecutive years of once-in-a-lifetime flooding events, most everyone’s begun to notice. Something’s changed around here.
But at the same time, I hear cautions about jumping to conclusions. A leading Christian conservationist advised me last evening: “Take due care not to confuse isolated weather events, however appalling, with wider trends” – like climate change.
Good advice, of course. But how then should we think about Hurricane Sandy, the “Frankenstorm?”  Is it an isolated event, or another milestone of an unfolding trend – a harbinger of a dark, permanent, carbon-fueled reality?
As I look around this city, most people agree that these extreme events are here to stay – whatever they know about global climate change.  The hotel waitress said it at breakfast: “I’ve been working here for fifteen years. We’ve never seen anything like these last four or five. My home is dark and cold. And with no gas now, how are we going to get home?”
The hotel manager agreed: “We might as well accept it,” he said, with his children – more storm refugees – at his side. “This is the way things are now.”
Flooded cars in the Financial District
The hotel’s owner was sure he knew about local weather trends five years ago when he made his investment. But “freak weather events” have struck every year since – floods and severe storms driving away guests from the hotel and businesses from the neighborhood.
His partners are sympathetic, but they have their own problems: homes damaged by fallen trees, neighborhoods swamped by unprecedented storm surges, power outages leaving them in the dark, and shut-down transit systems preventing them from getting back to work.
The city’s mayor also sees the new climate trends: “What is clear is that the storms that we’ve experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Whether that’s global warming or what, I don’t know. But we’ll have to address those issues.” (Trust the savvy mayor to call it straight while ducking the politically-sensitive issue of climate change!)
The governor is less cautious: “Climate change is reality,” said Governor Cuomo. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable…. There’s only so long you can say, ‘well this is a once-in-a-lifetime and it will never happen again. I believe it’s going to happen again. I pray that it’s not; I believe that it is.”
“We have a 100-year flood every two years now,” continued Cuomo. “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.”
So far, only the Fox News anchor dismisses the apparent new popular consensus. On the TV screen above the hotel bar last night, Bill O’Reilly had dug up a meteorologist armed with stories of mega storms from about a century ago, when greenhouse gas concentrations were much lower.  The message was clear: Storms happen all the time; don’t believe the alarmists who tell you that it’s a global warming milestone.
Storm surge hit the Jersey Shore with a vengeance
So who’s to be believed? Are these changes here to stay, evidence of human-caused climate change? Or are we dealing with isolated weather events?
Well, there are people whose sole business is to assess risk associated with future hazards. For the insurance industry, our question is no theoretical exercise. In their business, it’s a matter of life and death. If storms like Sandy are “isolated events,” some smart players will grab market share while their more timid competitors reduce their exposure. If it’s “the new reality,” then that same strategy will land them in bankruptcy court.
So it’s interesting to note that insurance giant Munich Re issued a report two weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit, stating that weather-related loss events have nearly quintupled in North America over the last 30 years – even after adjusting for population growth, development and inflation.
“Anthropogenic climate change is believed to contribute to this trend,” said Munich Re in a press release, “though it influences various perils in different ways. Climate change particularly affects formation of heat-waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run most probably also tropical cyclone intensity.”
Munich Re thinks North American weather has been hit hard in these last 30 years, and climate change is a notable part of the problem — the only one they mention. But maybe the trends are different elsewhere on earth?  Sadly, no. Over the last 30 years in Asia, severe weather events are up by a factor of 4.0. In Africa, 2.5. In Europe, 2.0. And even South America has seen a 50% increase in severe weather during the same period.
Subway to nowhere: Public transit under water
The whole world is getting stormier, but North America is getting the worst of it.
“In all likelihood, we have to regard this finding as an initial climate-change footprint in our US loss data from the last four decades,” said Peter Höppe, Head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research unit. “Previously, there had not been such a strong chain of evidence. If the first effects of climate change are already perceptible, all alerts and measures against it have become even more pressing.”
And Munich Re Board Member Peter Röder had a special warning for Americans: “We should prepare for the weather risk changes that lie ahead, and nowhere more so than in North America.”
So what’s the verdict? Is climate change causing big storms like Hurricane Sandy?  Scientific American Senior Editor Mark Fischetti offers a blunt assessment:  “No doubt here: It is.”
“If you don’t believe scientists,” writes Fischetti, “then believe insurance giant Munich Re.”
And if you don’t believe either scientists or insurers, then wait till you get your next property insurance renewal – if it’s renewed at all.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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