In the wake of Sandy
HURRICANE SANDY has wreaked havoc on the northeast coast of the United States, with New York City one of its principal victims. Its storm surge of nearly four metres flooded parts of Manhattan and Queens as well as major road tunnels and subway lines and left 670,000 homes and business premises without electricity in “the largest storm-related outage in our history”, according to power company Consolidated Edison. It also caused the pre-emptive closure of the city’s airports, schools, subways, theatres and the New York Stock Exchange. Everyone with any sense battened down the hatches and, with public transport no longer operating, “the city that never sleeps” was turned into a ghost town whipped by high winds and heavy rain. Yesterday, along with Long Island, New York was declared a disaster area, with preliminary estimates of the economic damage as high as $6 billion. No wonder it has been dubbed “Frankenstorm”.
As with other “extreme weather events”, it is not possible to attribute Hurricane Sandy to climate change. However, the storm can be seen as the latest instalment of an unfolding pattern of extremes in North America that turned 2012 into “a banner year for weather anomalies”, including the most severe US drought since the Dust Bowl years. Higher-than-average sea-surface temperatures have been observed along the east coast, which means there is more moisture in the atmosphere, and this – combined with a full Moon and low land temperatures – fuelled the ferocity of this “perfect storm”. If sea levels rise as predicted by climate scientists, the nightmare scenario for New York is that extreme flooding will become much more commonplace.
Against this backdrop, it is incredible that global warming has barely been mentioned during the US presidential campaign. Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney won’t say anything about it for fear of alienating climate change deniers, while President Barack Obama is loath to draw attention to his earlier credentials on the issue because Americans remain so sceptical about whether it’s happening at all. When questioned about it over the weekend, he expressed “surprise” it hadn’t come up during his television debates with Mr Romney, though he himself could easily have raised it. The elephant in the room can no longer be ignored.