East Coast Faces Monstrous Halloween Hurricane: How is Climate Change Fueling Sandy?

Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy off the shores of Florida and an approaching cold front across the Midwest. (NASA GOES, 10-25-2012)
As Hurricane Sandy barrels up the East Coast, forecasters are giving it nicknames that sound like the title of a disaster movie: Frankenstorm. The Perfect Storm II. All point to the grave danger of a monster storm fueled by the historic convergence of rare weather conditions and climate impacts.

Meteorologists did not pick the name Frankenstorm only because of the Halloween timing. The name also reflects the highly unusual nature of this storm. Here’s what the meteorologists are forecasting right now:

  • Sustained winds of at least 50-60 mph for a large swath of the coast for at least 24 hours, with windy conditions for as long as a week.
  • Rainfall totals of 4-8 inches or more for a large region. Many areas will experience rainfall amounts maybe only seen once a century.
  • Storm surge of 3-6 feet resulting from days of winds blowing sea water toward the coast combined with full moon conditions.
  • Collision with an eastward moving cold front, setting up conditions even worse than the famous “Perfect Storm” of 1991.
  • Mountainous areas are likely to get snow.
  • Sandy is already huge – extending more than 500 miles across – and expected to grow before making landfall.

If the forecasts are correct, chances are very good that this is a storm that no Americans alive today have ever witnessed. In other words, if you live along the coastal areas where landfall is expected and think you know what to expect, think again.

The Frightening Forecast

Folks, this storm is exactly the sort of thing climate scientists have been worried about for years. Global warming is putting hurricanes on steroids and we’re beginning to see the effects:

  • Global warming puts more energy into storms. This means stronger winds and larger storms. And this means storms that sustain their powerful winds longer as they make their way out of the tropics.
  • A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, meaning that storms bring more rainfall.
  • Higher sea levels – resulting from thermal expansion, melting glaciers and ice caps – lead to higher storm surge and more flooding damage. Sea levels along the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are rising up to four times faster than the global average.
  • From power outages to oil rig disruptions, extreme weather threatens America’s energy infrastructure.

With the record-setting temperatures we’ve had in 2012, getting a big hurricane comes as no surprise. Globally and for the United States, 2012 is on track to be the hottest year on record. Sea surface temperatures along the hurricane’s forecasted tract are about 5°F above average, providing continued energy to this storm as it moves northward.

Unusual and Extreme Are Becoming the New ‘Normal’

Every time another one of these disasters begin unfolding, I think that maybe this will be the one that makes people realize that global warming is something we need to address now. How many lives must be lost and billions of dollars of losses incurred before we start taking real action? How many people must have their homes threatened by wildfires, their livelihoods decimated by drought, or their families in the crosshairs of a Frankenstorm before we realize that global warming is not a hoax or a joke? But so far, mainstream media coverage has completely ignored Sandy’s connection to climate change.

I live in Reston, VA – right in Sandy’s current forecast path. This weekend, I’ll be getting my kids ready for Halloween: making sure that all the parts of their costumes are in order, carving pumpkins, and loading up on candy. But I’ll also be preparing for another kind of fright, by stocking up on water, food and batteries, while stowing our outdoor furniture and other things that could easily blow away.

The timing of this storm also happens to coincide with a chance that we as Americans can make our voices heard. We need to let political candidates know – from the Presidential race to local elections – that our nation needs to have a plan to protect our communities by addressing the root cause of climate change, as well as the effects. If we don’t take steps to curb carbon pollution, these sorts of freak storms will be a more and more frequent part of our reality.

Take Action

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were never asked about climate change or extreme weather at the presidential debates. Take a moment to urge Obama and Romney to tell us their plans to address climate change now.