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Hurricane Watch in New York City

10/28/12

Extreme Weather Coming Soon to an Eastern Seaboard Near You

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“We have a tropical hurricane merging, or folding in, with a mid-latitude weather system, one of those low pressure systems that track across the country. The two systems’ dynamics are very different and when they occasionally fold together, they actually produce the worst characteristics of both. . . . This is the same thing that happened during the perfect storm of 1991 [as popularized by author Sebastian Junger], and at roughly the same time.” —Barry Keim, Louisiana State Climatologist, quoted by Mark Schleifstein, Times-Picayune

“Sandy also is different in its size, rivaling the largest cyclones ever recorded around the globe, Keim said, with hurricane-force winds extending outward 175 miles from its center and tropical storm-force winds extending out 485 miles.” —Mark Schleifstein, Times-Picayune

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Last year when Hurricane Irene was barreling down on the East Coast—on the 6th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as it happened—we were (ironically) safe from the storm, attending the Rising Tide conference in New Orleans. Irene, a Category 1 hurricane when it hit the East Coast, caused over $15 billion in damage and left many in the Northeast without power for a week or more. Now a bigger and badder storm, 900 miles across, is taking aim at the Atlantic Coast, from North Carolina to Connecticut, and low-lying areas around New Jersey and New York City and Long Island are being evacuated, with warnings of dangerously high sea water. Storm surge could reach 11 feet in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.

The New York City subway and bus system (MTA) has been shut down as of 7:00 p.m. Sunday by order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, along with the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Railroad. That’s 468 subway stations going dark, and officials warn that trains may not run again until Wednesday. (The MTA normally moves about 8.5 million passengers a day.) Schools and offices are closed in New York City and around the metropolitan area for Monday, and we’ll see about Tuesday. Evacuations have been ordered for the lowest-elevation areas shown in red on the map above. Workers are laying down plywood over subway air vents on city sidewalks to prevent or lessen flooding in the subway tunnels, many of which are below sea level—some far below.

Oct. 29 update: The New York Times reports that Amtrak has canceled most trains on the Eastern Seaboard. Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia mass transit systems and New Jersey Transit are also shutting down till the storm passes. • NYT live updates here. • Click here for a NOAA animation of satellite observations showing Hurricane Sandy in motion Oct. 26–29. • NASA images here.

2012’s Extreme Weather Triggered Decades Ago

It is often not possible to tie any given weather event directly to man-made climate change, so we cannot say at this point whether this oncoming storm is intensified by greenhouse gas emissions. But Hurricane Sandy is coming rather late in the hurricane season (June 1–Nov. 30), and it’s the second hurricane in 14 months to strike the East Coast in a big way. The point of climate change is not just “global warming,” but extreme weather, as in the frequent tornadoes that pummeled America’s midsection in the spring of 2011 (see “Wrath of God? : Global Warming and Extreme Weather”).

In this year that saw widespread drought and crop failures in the United States, with over a thousand counties in 26 states declared natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the largest such designation ever—the two mainstream presidential candidates have avoided even uttering the word “environment,” unless in reference to “the business environment.” Climate change denial expands (see “Ides of March” below) even as the ice caps’ summer melts reach alarming new records.

[In a GOP primary debate, however, Mitt Romney said that emergency management should be handed over to the states. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction.” Including disaster relief? the moderator asked. “We cannot . . . afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids.” Historical note: It was in response to persistent pleas from state governors that President Jimmy Carter established FEMA in 1979.]

During the peak of this summer’s heat blast, New Yorker environmental reporter Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out one of the most alarming facts about the extreme weather: As hot as it was this summer, the record-setting heat of 2012 was set in motion decades ago:

One of the most salient—but also, unfortunately, most counterintuitive—aspects of global warming is that it operates on what amounts to a time delay. Behind this summer’s heat are greenhouse gases emitted decades ago. Before many effects of today’s emissions are felt, it will be time for the Summer Olympics of 2048. (Scientists refer to this as the “commitment to warming.”) What’s at stake is where things go from there. It is quite possible that by the end of the century we could, without even really trying, engineer the return of the sort of climate that hasn’t been seen on earth since the Eocene, some fifty million years ago.

Along with the heat and the drought and the super derecho, the country this summer is also enduring a Presidential campaign. So far, the words “climate change” have barely been uttered. This is not an oversight. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have chosen to remain silent on the issue, presumably because they see it as just too big a bummer.

And so, while farmers wait for rain and this season’s corn crop withers on the stalk, the familiar disconnect continues. There’s no discussion of what could be done to avert the worst effects of climate change, even as the insanity of doing nothing becomes increasingly obvious.

Beware the Ides of March

On March 15, 2011, Scientific American reported, House Republicans, working on legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate climate change, voted down an amendment calling on Congress to acknowledge that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” Think Progress found that 50 percent of the House Republicans elected in 2010 denied the existence of climate change.

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For some accounts of the relationship between climate change and increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods, and even allergies, check out these sources from the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and these Wikipedia articles on effects of global warming and extreme weather.

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For more information . . .

National Hurricane Center

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

New York City Office of Emergency Management

New Jersey Office of Emergency Management

Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Info

The Weather Channel/Weather.com

AccuWeather

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Credits: Map of New York City Hurricane Evacuation Zones by The New York Times; satellite photo of Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 28, 2012, by NOAA. Bottom: President Obama, with FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate at right, in Oct. 28, 2012, briefing (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images).

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