Bookmark This One: Trenberth’s Take on Sandy

October 31, 2012

For now, this is the definitive snap of what we know.

Kevin Trenberth in The Scientist:

Sandy started as an ordinary hurricane, feeding on the warm surface waters of the Atlantic Ocean for fuel.  The warm moist air spirals into the storm, and as moisture rains out, it provides the heat needed to drive the storm clouds.  By the time Sandy made landfall on Monday evening, it had become an extratropical cyclone with some tropical storm characteristics: a lot of active thunderstorms but no eye.  This transformation came about as a winter storm that had dumped snow in Colorado late last week merged with Sandy to form a hybrid storm that was also able to feed on the mid-latitude temperature contrasts.  The resulting storm—double the size of a normal hurricane—spread hurricane force winds over a huge area of the United States as it made landfall.   Meanwhile an extensive easterly wind fetch had already resulted in piled up sea waters along the Atlantic coast.  This, in addition to the high tide, a favorable moon phase, and exceedingly low pressure, brought a record-setting storm surge that reached over 13 feet in lower Manhattan and coastal New Jersey.  This perfect combination led to coastal erosion, massive flooding, and extensive wind damage that caused billions in dollars of damage.

In many ways, Sandy resulted from the chance alignment of several factors associated with the weather. A human influence was also present, however.  Storms typically reach out and grab available moisture from a region 3 to 5 times the rainfall radius of the storm itself, allowing it to make such prodigious amounts of rain. The sea surface temperatures just before the storm were some 5°F above the 30-year average, or “normal,” for this time of year over a 500 mile swath off the coastline from the Carolinas to Canada, and 1°F of this is very likely a direct result of global warming.  With every degree F rise in temperatures, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more moisture. Thus, Sandy was able to pull in more moisture, fueling a stronger storm and magnifying the amount of rainfall by as much as 5 to 10 percent compared with conditions more than 40 years ago.  Heavy rainfall and widespread flooding are a consequence.  Climate change has also led to the continual rise in sea levels—currently at a rate of just over a foot per century—as a result of melting land ice (especially glaciers and Greenland) and the expanding warming ocean, providing a higher base level from which the storm surge operates.

These physical factors associated with human influences on climate likely contribute to more intense and possibly slightly bigger storms with heavier rainfalls.  But this is very hard to prove because of the naturally large variability among storms.  This variability also makes it impossible to prove there is no human influence.  Instead, it is important to recognize that we have a “new normal,” whereby the environment in which all storms form is simply different than it was just a few decades ago.  Global climate change has contributed to the higher sea surface and sub-surface ocean temperatures, a warmer and moister atmosphere above the ocean, higher water levels around the globe, and perhaps more precipitation in storms.

The super storm Sandy follows on the heels of Isaac earlier this year and Irene last year, both of which also produced widespread flooding as further evidence of the increased water vapor in the atmosphere associated with warmer oceans. Active hurricane seasons in the North Atlantic since 1994 have so far peaked with three category 5 hurricanes in the record breaking 2005 season, one of which was Katrina.  As human-induced effects through increases in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere continue, still warmer oceans and higher sea levels are guaranteed. As Mark Twain said in the late 19th century, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Now humans are changing the weather, and nobody does anything about it! As we have seen this year, whether from drought, heat waves and wild fires, or super storms, there is a cost to not taking action to slow climate change, and we are experiencing this now.

From New Zealand, Kevin Trenberth is a distinguished senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). He has been heavily engaged in the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP), where he currently chairs the Global Energy and Water Exchanges (GEWEX) program, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.


54 Responses to “Bookmark This One: Trenberth’s Take on Sandy”

  1. Jumping Jesus on a pogo-stick. Pedantic and obtuse.

  2. […] chi preferisce Bloomberg e la finanza a Hansen e alla climatologia: It’s Global Warming, […]

  3. danolner Says:

    So Omnologos says his ‘AGW is logically impossible’ page is a joke. I am a little confused. When Greenfyre wrote at length about it, you replied at length and at no point did you say “it’s a joke” – despite Greenfyre wondering in the article whether it was. Could you explain?

    • omnologos Says:

      I suggest we stop having me as conversational topic. As for the ‘joke’, it’s a ‘joke’ of the kind which if you need to have it explained, you won’t ever ‘get it’. That’s what happened to Greenfyre.

  4. danolner Says:

    Omno, this is important because you come and comment here regularly and take up people’s time. If you’re not taking part in good faith, or with some basic ability to communicate as a straightforward, honest person, I’m going to keep on at you to either change that or leave.

    I’ve posted that many people, including a couple of professional philosphers, think your page why AGW is logically impossible makes no sense. One even wondered if it was a joke. You replied: “yes, the list is a joke. Some people are too slow to get it.”

    I pointed out that at Greenfyre’s take on your ‘logically impossible’ thing, you replied in the comments. At no point did you say “actually, the article isn’t meant seriously.” E.g. here’s one of your comments.

    There’s even a comment of yours on your own ‘AGW logically impossible’ page from 10 minutes ago where you’re discussing your article as though it’s genuine and serious.

    Most of us can tell joke articles. We know denialdepot is a joke site. Are you saying that your article is also a joke? A spoof? Not at all serious? If so, why do you appear to be supporting it with serious comments?

    Can you offer me a straight answer on that? Is your piece serious, or is it a spoof? Or are you using the word ‘joke’ in the sentence “yes, the list is a joke” to mean something other than ‘joke’?

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Perhaps Maurizio is suffering from Romnesia?

      • rayduray Says:


        Previously we’ve diagnosed the patient and determined he’s in need of a radical cranialrectalotomy.

        Rebecca Solnit at TomDispatch offers a thoughtful view of Sandy as the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. I think she’s being a bit unimaginative at the hell and high water that appears to be coming next:

        For those with no imagination, (I’m thinking of you Omno) here’s a graphic demonstration that the world is truly going to hell in a much grander style than we achieved in the former world. Compare the size of these two storms. One’s a tiddler, the other a harbinger of things to come.

        Finally, let me reflect that when James Hansen wrote “Storms of My Grandchildren” in 2008, he was envisioning hurricanes like Sandy to be upon us by the year 2050. Even Dr. Hansen wasn’t quite bold enough to keep up with the changes we’re seeing right before our very eyes (except for you Omno, you are redefining blindness, but then where must your eyes be with yer head stuffed so far up yer bottom?).

    • omnologos Says:

      Dan – I can confirm the comment made at Greenfyre’s: Anthropogenic Climate Change has become logically impossible because too many people have jumped on the bandwagon, adding layer upon layer of dubious claims for whatever goal (Revkin calls it a “Christmas tree”). The merits of the scientific theory, and the issues regarding risk management, have been swamped as shown by the results of Cancun, and one doesn’t have to be the Koch Industries PR Director to recognize that.

      There are many ways to deal with the absurd and one of them is to describe it absurdly. In fact, at one point I use the list to demonstrate the existence of God.

      Anybody that doesn’t understand what that means, I do not have the time to extract them from their own depth (and thickness).

      • danolner Says:

        Omno, you failed to give anything like a direct answer and you implied that I’m stupid. I don’t know what your comment means. I promise you, that’s not because I’m stupid. As an academic, it’s my job to understand things people write and to try and write clearly myself. Some people fail to be clear because they can’t write well. You are not being clear because, as far as I can tell, you choose not to. That makes you a troll. You’ve been unable to provide clarity on the simple matter of whether *one of your own webpages* is a joke or not. I still don’t know. I’m going to summarise this exchange and whenever I see you post here I’m going to link to it, to try and spare others the time I’ve wasted trying to treat you like a reasonable person.

        Feel free to try and be clear with me at this point though, if you can.

        • omnologos Says:

          You (a) keep mentioning your day job; (b) are determined to discuss my blog here despite that being absolutely off-topic and despite repeated requests to stop; (c) are now suggesting me how I should write my own posts.

          That’s (a) a sign of frustration; (b) the mark of the troll; (c) stupid in the extreme. No wonder you’re still baffled by absurdism.

          • danolner Says:

            Uh huh. Is your article on AGW a joke or not? Yes or no? If yes, could you expound on the joke aspect of it for us? If you can’t answer these questions directly, the reason it’s relevant is because it’s a very useful shortcut to highlighting that you won’t/can’t answer a direct question or engage transparently, even about one of your own articles. While you come here and continue to take up eyeball time, that’s relevant.

          • omnologos Says:

            I wonder how many people asked when Godot would finally pop up.

  5. danolner Says:

    Oddly, Omno, a search of your site only finds you misusing the word ‘absurdist’ when you mean ‘absurd’. But your last two comments talking about absurdism appear to imply you think you’re inflicting some sort of art on us. Obviously, you won’t be giving a straight answer to anything, but this might start to explain why. You think your some sort of genius artist.

    • omnologos Says:

      You’re projecting now Dan. Frustration is getting the best of you again?

      I repeat: it’s my site and I do as I damn well please. I recommend you go back playing with your tools.

      • danolner Says:

        I’m not frustrated by you, I’m bemused by you. Also, I have to confess, I’m using this a way to think through how comment threads function (or don’t) given the nature of different participants, and whether there’s anything to be done about that. My current conclusion is that if someone has demonstrated an inability to answer simple direct questions, that should be attached to their profile and made clearly visible if/when they post.

        Our own writing external to this thread IS relevant though. If I’d written an blog entry expounding the virtues of Monckton, that would be relevant if I was then coming here and pretending to be against him. It would, at the very least, demand an explanation and would cast doubt on my good faith, if I were unable to clarify.

        But you’re right, we should stop. See you on the next thread.

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