Climate and weather experts, find out what we know about the big storms since Sandy
Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, killing more than 40 people and causing $19 billion in damage. Researchers at Columbia University played a key scientific and policy role in the city’s preparedness for and response to the storm.at this Q&A series After 10 years, we asked several people in important positions to look back and look to the future.
meteorologists and climatologists Adam Sobel President of Columbia University Extreme Weather and Climate Initiative. When Sandy struck, he became a popular commentator on news reports and documentaries Storms and their effects, and later general climate change.author Storm surge: Hurricane Sandy, our changing climate and extreme weather past and future, He has written about climate science and politics for The New York Times, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and other outlets. He is a professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and its School of Engineering.
When did scientists like you start thinking about the link between climate change and extreme weather?
The idea that climate change affects extreme weather has been around for a long time. It definitely predates my career from the early 1990s. I myself started thinking about it seriously in the mid-2000s. At the time, my colleagues and I were studying the relationship between tropical cyclones and natural climate changes such as El Niño. After 2005, after Hurricane Katrina and many other catastrophic storms, we began to think hard about this connection. So did many others, around the same time.
Do you have any predictions for Sandy?
I don’t make my own weather forecast. First off, I’m not good at it compared to professionals who do it full time. What’s more, in extreme events, it is important to have clear authorities and responsibilities so that the public does not get conflicting information. The National Weather Service makes forecasts, which can be customized by their local offices or private companies. But I can interpret and explain the predictions. For example, I can tell a subtle story about uncertainty. Official forecasts provide some information on this, but not always as much, perhaps because they are afraid to confuse people.
In the case of Sandy, I did make a prediction that I’m proud of, but it wasn’t about the weather. Three days before the storm hit, I was on WNYC radio and host Brian Lehrer played a recording of the head of the MTA saying don’t worry, there’s no need to shut down the subway. I said I thought he might reconsider that decision, and he did. The subways did close, and they did a good thing because of course, when the storm made landfall, they were flooded.I should say here that I have read the research of my colleague in Colombia Claus Jacob Talk to George Deodatis about the subway’s flood risk.
What is your personal experience with storms? Did it shape the way you think about things later?
Before the storm hit, I spent a few days stuck on my computer at home watching all the data come in. On landfall Monday night, I walked to the Hudson River west of Harlem and the water was in the middle of 12th Avenue. I can’t say anything that surprised me intellectually, but it was a very powerful experience. I was totally buoyed up while realizing painfully that this was a human catastrophe. It was hard to reconcile those emotions, and it still is. I suspect this is common to anyone researching disasters of any kind. I can’t imagine that epidemiologists aren’t very excited about the Covid pandemic in a way, but at the same time, they certainly know how scary it is, just like everyone else.
What have we learned about the link between climate and extreme weather since then? For example, do we seem to have more or stronger storms?
The link between climate and extreme events is not comprehensive. I think for heatwaves, and possibly extreme rainfall events, the evidence is pretty clear. For hurricanes, it’s more subtle. There is strong evidence that hurricanes are getting stronger. But there is no evidence that there is more of this on a global scale, and in fact it is unclear whether we should expect such evidence. Many models predict that as the climate warms, there should be fewer tropical cyclones, not more. On the other hand, there has been a clear trend towards more hurricanes in the Atlantic over the past few decades, and I think there is growing evidence that this increase is at least partly attributable to humans.The Atlantic behaves differently from other basins for a variety of reasons; I have write about this.
What have we learned about how to deal with extreme weather?
A central story of my book on Sandy is that emergency management in New York City is actually doing pretty well. This is largely due to decades-old planning efforts that focused on a possible Sandy-like event. This saved many lives. One exception was proposals for flood protection infrastructure, which ended up being almost completely ignored.
After Sandy, we saw federally funded reconstruction and resilience efforts battle federal regulations and other issues, and in many places lead to Green gentrification.
After the storm, you become the source of the media, which a lot of scientists shy away from. What is your purpose there? How well do you think the media is doing with weather and climate science?
In the weeks and months after Sandy, I had a lot of conversations with reporters, and it was true. I persisted for a few years. At this point, I’ve basically transitioned to writing my own. I prefer this because I can say what I really want to say, what I want to say, and all the context it needs. Some of my work became quite political in the late Trump years. I have no particular expertise in politics, so I relate climate to what I write.
On average, the media has gotten better and climate coverage has expanded dramatically compared to 10 or 20 years ago. There are many more mediocre stories, but there are more journalists working now who are focused on the topic and know a lot about it. Their challenge—and I do, in my own popular work—is to explain what we know without exaggerating or understating it. Especially the strong temptation to highlight the link between every extreme weather event and climate change, which sometimes leads to some distortions. On the other hand, many scientists stressing uncertainty to the point that it sounds like we don’t know anything is also misleading, and maybe a worse way. I’m trying to navigate between the two.
What are the prospects of another Sandy-type storm hitting New York?
The risk in any given year is minimal. In historical climates, Sandy could be an event with a probability of only a few percent per year—an event in hundreds of years, if you will. This may be rising due to climate change, but probably not by a significant amount. That’s not to say these changes aren’t important. they are. But such storms are not the “new normal.”
What are New York’s long-term survival prospects?
Rising sea levels pose an unstoppable long-term threat to New York City. In the short term, it increases the risk of a Sandy-type event, as even weaker storm surges can cause greater flooding if they start at higher sea levels. A hundred years ago, Sandy’s flood might have been a foot less. Much of this is due to climate change, but some is also due to natural subsidence of coastlines caused by long-term geological forces. Beyond coastal flooding, flash floods like the one we saw with Hurricane Ida in 2021 are almost certainly increasingly likely. I’m also very worried about the heat wave coming in the summer in New York. I think the city will survive because it is so important that it is the global center of capitalism and culture. But its survival will come with increased pain and adaptation. The challenge is to maximize adaptation and minimize pain.