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SANDY AND THE WINDS OF CHANGE: You don't need a climate scientist to see which way the wind blows


Friday November 30, 2012

 

by EUGENE LINDEN

 

Even as Sandy underwent its bizarre metamorphosis from hurricane to winter storm, the question arose in many inquiring minds (at least those not beholden to a solemn oath of climate-change denial): Was this historic storm a symptom of global warming? Climate science has two ready answers: Absolutely! And, of course not!

On the one hand, a warming globe makes megastorms more probable, while on the other, it is impossible to pin a global warming sticker on Sandy because the circumstances that turned it into a monster could have been mere coincidence.

There is, however, another way of looking at Sandy that might resolve this debate, and also help frame what we really should be worried about when it comes to global warming: An infrastructure created to defend against historical measures of worst-case natural threats was completely overpowered by this storm.

THEN AND NOW: Devastation from super storm Sandy

New York City's defenses were inadequate, and coastal defenses failed over a swath of hundreds of miles. Around the nation, such mismatches have been repeated ever more frequently in recent years.

This summer, barge owners discovered that dredging in the Mississippi River, predicated on the history of the river's ups and downs, left it too shallow for commercial traffic because of the intense Midwestern drought. And, famously, levees in New Orleans that were largely through the process of being improved even as Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 were still breached in 50 places. Then, seven years to the day after Katrina struck, Plaquemines Parish was drowned by Hurricane Isaac in flooding residents described as worse than Katrina's.

It's true that factors other than megastorms — loss of flood plains, subsidence and neglect — can exacerbate a failure, but the number of failures of all types of defenses has been stunning.

Such failures are telling us that something new is afoot. Our levees, dredging protocols and, in New York City, subway tunnel designs and improvements incorporate society's best guess of what it takes to protect against the worst nature might throw at us. Such defenses are expensive, so a city or agency won't spend more than it deems necessary. But the consequences of underestimating are also so enormous — consider the billions that will be spent restoring Manhattan's infrastructure and ruined neighborhoods alone — that we routinely construct them to withstand 100- or even 500-year events, estimates based on probability calculations and history of rare, extreme disasters. Yet these days such events seem to occur annually.

This is borne out by statistics. Among the many records set by Sandy, one was for the highest wave ever recorded in New York Harbor: 32.5 feet. That eclipsed the previous record wave of 26 feet. When was the earlier record set? Just last year, courtesy of Hurricane Irene.

Another message from Sandy is the reminder that climate change is camouflaged. It arrives as familiar weather events and after slowly accumulating changes.

Sandy was unusual in many ways, but it is also easy to dismiss its significance because it started out as a hurricane and hurricanes have always marched up the Atlantic coast, even as late as November. As for the surge that inundated beach towns and city streets, it came on top of a sea level that has been rising slowly, on average less than one-tenth of an inch per year, though the pace has been accelerating in recent decades. The oceans are now roughly 9 inches higher than they were 140 years ago, and, for the most part, our sea defenses have not kept pace.

Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. In trying to protect Grand Forks, N.D., from a spring flood in 1997, the city used sandbags to defend against a high-water mark of 52 feet, comfortably above the 49-foot crest predicted by the National Weather Service but, unfortunately, below the 54-foot crest that occurred on April 21. It was only 10% higher than what was expected, but the damage was many hundred times greater than if the protections had not been breached; 50,000 homes suffered damage.

At some point the consensus among climate scientists might convince even those now in denial that they ignore the role of global warming in extreme weather events at the nation's peril. In the meantime, Sandy's trampling of the Northeast's defenses against the weather, as well as scores of other major infrastructure failures in the face of extreme floods, heat, drought and winds in the United States and around the world, tell us that climate change is already here.

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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