Did Climate Change Throw a Left Hook at Manhattan?

The science behind climate change isn’t settled. That’s how science works. But the likely connection to Hurricane Sandy is too strong to be ignored.

While traveling last summer, I found myself in a rental car kiosk near Sea-Tac Airport with an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). We were both waiting for the less-than-fully-trained early morning shift of the rental car company to remember how to print receipts. They never did remember.

The NOAA employee was returning home after a three-month assignment in Port Angeles, helping the local National Weather Service staff upgrade to a new generation of meteorological equipment.

I asked him for his thoughts on climate change. It was a timely question. Later that morning, my traveling companion and I would sit on the tarmac for over an hour waiting for a thunderstorm to abate so fueling could be completed and we could depart for home. I lived in Seattle for five years in the 1980s and don’t recall a single summertime thunderstorm, but it was the second Seattle thunderstorm of the summer of 2012.

Without hesitation, the NOAA employee responded that we can only judge long-term climate patterns in hindsight. That it might be a century hence before we can truly and accurately assess what is happening to our climate in 2012.

It reminded me of the joke about the balloonist caught in a freak wind pattern. After being tossed about for several hours, he found himself above unfamiliar terrain. He spotted a farmer plowing a field below and called out "Where am I?"

The farmer scratched his chin, thought for a moment, and called back "You’re in a balloon."

The balloonist turned to his companion and said "He’s completely right.  And completely useless."

The "can’t judge for a century" response was equally correct and useless. I’m not criticizing the NOAA employee. His response probably came directly from the NOAA playbook and was intended to avoid embroiling employees in sidewalks debates with extremists on either end of the climate change spectrum.

I would have tried him to convince that I was asking in a true spirit of intellectual curiosity, not as the opening to a rant, but the rental car folks finally admitted defeat and sent us on our way without receipts. (I’ll never again patronize that rental car company.)

This conversation was brought forcefully back to mind by Hurricane Sandy. It’s nice to say that we won’t know about a climate change for a century, but it’s not at all helpful. Instead, we must make decisions on the best information at hand and then implement the policies needed to follow those decisions.

I had hoped to delay this climate change discussion for awhile longer. I’m far from a climate change expert. I may have done more reading than others, but it’s an exceedingly complex subject. I’ve promised to give myself a gift of climate change knowledge for Christmas this year, setting aside all other reading materials for the two holiday weeks in favor of four books on climate change that represent the full spectrum of opinions. (Hey, you have your Yuletide traditions, I have mine.)

But Hurricane Sandy forced my hand. I’ll introduce the subject of climate change here, with the plan to return to it as events bring it back to the fore. Particularly after Christmas.

Climate change is strongly tied to the urbanism focus of this blog. This article in Salon makes the connection well. The article is long and sometimes wanders, but remains well worth your attention. Writer Jeff Speck, who has a forthcoming book on walkability that will also be on my reading table, notes that the average energy use of people living in walkable urban settings is far less than of people living in drivable suburbia.

Speck argues that we’ve been seduced by "gizmo green", the thought that we can add solar panels or a bamboo floor to our current lifestyle and think we’ve done enough. But he notes that the average savings from a year of CFL lightbulbs is equal to the energy savings from one week of living in a walkable urban community. Urbanism isn’t a panacea to the energy usage that may be behind climate change, but it’s a damn fine start. 

Which brings us back to the question of whether climate change caused Sandy. The answer is probably not. However, it probably made Sandy worse.  The current studies indicate that storm frequencies won’t be impacted by climate change, but the intensity of weather events will be increased. For references, this is the infamos Business Week article of last week and here is another from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  There are many other articles reporting the same information.

None of this proves that climate change is real, is caused by humans, or is changing the weather. It’s possible that scientists have missed a key calculation or that the earth has an ability to moderate the climate that we’ve yet to discern. But it is the considered opinion of a vast majority of the scientists who studied it and it’s the best information we have.

Besides, do we buckle our seatbelts knowing that the odds of an accident during any particular trip are very slight? Do we submit to airport security screenings when the probability of a terrorist targeting our flight is impossibly low? Doesn’t it make sense to give the same consideration to climate change, which is credibly judged to be much more likely than either? Especially when, in the case of urbanism, all we need to do is remove the impediments slowing urbanism? A majority of the population has already expressed a desire for greater walkability, so the marketplace will work just fine if we let it.

By the way, I’m not putting myself on a pedestal here. I try to limit my carbon footprint, but I’m far from perfect. (If I was perfect, I wouldn’t have been at Sea-Tac Airport this summer.) But I’m aware of the concern and am continually looking for ways to do better.

Photo note: The photo is from the Washington Post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Wire November 05, 2012 at 08:29 PM
U.S. state temperature extremes From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Jump to: navigation, search The following table lists the highest and lowest temperatures recorded in each state in the United States, in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. State Record high Temperature Date Place(s) Record low Temperature Date Place(s) Alabama 112 °F / 46 °C September 5, 1925 Centerville −27 °F / −33 °C January 30, 1966 New Market Alaska 100 °F / 38 °C June 27, 1915 Fort Yukon −80 °F / −62 °C January 23, 1971 Prospect Creek Arizona 128 °F / 53 °C June 29, 1994 Lake Havasu City −40 °F / −40 °C January 7, 1971 Hawley Lake Arkansas 120 °F / 49 °C August 10, 1936 Ozark −29 °F / −34 °C February 13, 1905 Pond California 134 °F / 57 °C July 10, 1913 Death Valley −45 °F / −43 °C January 20, 1937 Boca Colorado 118 °F / 48 °C July 11, 1888 Bennett −61 °F / −52 °C February 1, 1985 Maybell Connecticut 106 °F / 41 °C July 15, 1995 Danbury −37 °F / −38 °C February 16, 1943* Norfolk Valley Delaware 110 °F / 43 °C July 21, 1930 Millsboro −17 °F / −27 °C January 17, 1893 Millsboro Look at the history of the 1938 New York Hurricane, 600 dead.
Dave Alden November 06, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Wire, thanks for the comment. However, assessing climate change based on historical extreme temperatures is sort of like awarding the Cy Young based on highest recorded velocity on a fastball. It's an interesting piece of information, although perhaps subject to measurement flaws. Plus, it's more important to look at longer term cumulative achievements, such as season-long ERA or wins. On that basis, it's worth noting that the highest average temperature for an entire month across all weather stations maintained by the National Weather Service was in July 2012. Regarding the 1938 hurricane, it was indeed intense and destructive, perhaps the most intense in New York and New England history. However, if it would recur today, the death toll would likely be less because building quality, meteorological predictions, and emergency services have all improved, which would reduce the deaths. So deaths aren't necessarily a good indicator of storm strength. And even if we describe the 1938 hurricane as the worst of the past century, we probably put the 2012 Hurricane Sandy and the 2011 Hurricane Irene right behind it. It should be a warning sign that perhaps two of the three most intense hurricanes in the past century have occurred in the last two years. It doesn't prove anything, but it's a telling data point. Thanks again for reading and for commenting. - Dave
Wire November 06, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Here is a good site, ( http://www.iceagenow.info/ ) something to think about. My favorite site when I go to Yosemite is driving up to Glacier Point looking down into the valley floor over three thousand feet down. Where did all that frozen water go? Miles and miles of glacier action along the highway 120. (Tioga Pass Road) I recommend a Spring drive in September sometime. Spring at 8,000 feet it's very pretty. Maybe a better read Dust Bow of the Thirties, weather must not cycle in your theory. Another site look to look at. Just last week a retreating glacier an Alaskan village was uncovered. Ancient Eskimo Village Discovered Thanks to Depleting Arctic Ice ... www.takepart.com/.../ancient-eskimo-village-uncovered-thanks-depl... Sep 9, 2012 – Global warming causes ancient Eskimo village to be uncovered in Alaska. Notice the spin? Thank to the depleting ice. So what came first the village or the the glacier? I think the earth cycles between cold to hot and back again. El Nino and La Nina Pacific Ocean. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Niña Blame it on Global warming then. Ice is melting at the North pole, but ice is build up at the South Pole.
Wire November 06, 2012 at 02:35 AM
Was this in the news? NOPE! Record Snowfall Left Behind From Sandy - kcentv.com - KCEN HD ... www.kcentv.com/story/.../record-snowfall-left-behind-from-sandy
Wire November 06, 2012 at 02:37 AM
Sorry that link is dead now try this one: http://iceagenow.info/2012/11/sandy-snowfall-smashes-previous-records/
Wire November 06, 2012 at 03:18 AM
Just Google: Was the Dust Bowl predictable?
Dave Alden November 06, 2012 at 07:08 PM
Wire, it was most certainly covered. The story in the days before the storm was the confluence of Hurricane Sandy, a typical New England "noreaster", and a cold front from Canada. The three storms was reason that "Frankenstorm" and "snoreastercane" were coined. Snow was predicted and the media covered the unseasonable snowfalls in West Virginia. Nor does unusual snowfall invalidate the climate change theory. The theory argues that increasing energy in the atmosphere will lead to more weather extremes in all directions, more droughts, stronger hurricanes, and unseasonal snowfall.
Dave Alden November 06, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Wire, it's an interesting scientific question as to whether the Dust Bowl could have been predicted from climatological data. Although we must remember that soil management practices were also a key element of the Dust Bowl. However, the existence of past weather cycles has no bearing on the climate change theory.
Dave Alden November 06, 2012 at 07:14 PM
Wire, see my response above.
Dave Alden November 06, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Wire, climate cycles have definitely occurred throughout geologic time. It's the way natural systems work. The fact that there have always been cycles in no way contradicts the climate change theory. But the current changes in the climate are occurring at a rate that seems to be far outside the normal rates of climate cycles. Plus they seem to be heading into a range that is possibly unprecedented Nor is climate change "my theory". It is the working theory of thousands of dedicated, truth-seeking scientists. It's possible they're wrong, but the vast preponderance of evidence now available supports their theory.
Wire November 06, 2012 at 07:57 PM
I guess the hot dry 30's as the record extremes don't prove anything to you. Neither does the BLACK TOP near your record HOT spots for rigged figures. Even the heat from air condition condensers, and as most temps are take at airports. Automated airport weather stations are automated sensor suites which are designed to serve aviation and meteorological observing needs for safe and efficient aviation operations and weather forecasting. Automated airport weather stations have become the backbone of weather observing in the United States and Canada, and are becoming increasingly prevalent worldwide due to their efficiency and cost-savings. Cold snap devastates New Zealand vineyards Early snowfalls hit northern China – Three Japanese tourists dead after being stranded overnight on the Great Wall Surprise snow blasts Britain – Despite none in the forecast Record cold in Ballarat, Australia Ireland feeling the “cold snap” too
Wire November 06, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Hurricane Sandy Not A Result Of Ocean Global Warming nor CO2 http://www.c3headlines.com/2012/11/noaa-confirms-hurricane-sandy-was-not-a-result-of-ocean-global-warming-nor-co2.html
Dave Alden November 07, 2012 at 06:44 PM
Wire, high temperatures from the 1930s may well have been a result of a weather cycle. But that has no pertinence to the concern that we may now be sliding into a much greater climate change. Regarding weather stations, during my career I've been involved with the installations of both weather stations and hydrologic measurement stations. I've never seen any but the highest level of professional integrity in the siting and construction of those facilities, assuring the maximum credibility of the data. I'm sure that some weather stations must be located in less than optimal locations due to site constraints, but I have no reason to believe that data corrections aren't applied. Indeed, we've gotten better over the last century in our understanding of the data. I trust the data of the last decade far more than the extreme reported temperatures of the 1930s. Nor does the current theory on climate change argue against the possibility of unusual cold weather events. Indeed, the presence of greater energy in the atmosphere (not just at groundlevel, but in the full depth of the atmosphere), specifically anticipates the possibility of unusually cold weather events.
Dave Alden November 07, 2012 at 06:51 PM
NOAA's comments have been well reported elsewhere. The full extent of their interpretation is that Hurricane Sandy would have likely formed with or without climate change. See the comments on "frequency" in the post above. However, the intensity of Sandy may have well be affected by climate change. Plus others have argued that the path of Sandy, resulting in the latest ever landfall of a major hurricane in New York/New Jersey, was affected by changing patterns in the upper atmosphere that may well be tied to climate change.
Wire November 07, 2012 at 08:14 PM
To change the subject a touch. After having a garden for a long time this year was more different than the rest of them. My bell peppers are sun burned more than ever, same with my tomatoes, then the 12 orange trees have burnt fruit and leaves. I'm not the only one that had felt that sun, as it feels more intense on the skin in a short time out in it this summer. From: http://www.takepart.com/social-justice http://www.takepart.co/environment http://www.takepart.com/foodAncient Eskimo Village Discovered Thanks to Depleting Arctic Ice ...www.takepart.com/article/.../ancient-eskimo-village-uncovered-thank Environment Ancient Eskimo Village Discovered Thanks to Depleting Arctic Ice Caps 500-year-old village may unlock clues about how to adapt to our current weather crisis. What was going on five hundred years ago in human history to cause a glacier to form and buried a village, as I think we are in a global cooling time period again. I would rather have global warming than cooling as this would increase the food supply for the our over population of the planet, Green House or Cold house? I'll use their spin "I believe". It sure has made lots of money for Al Gore though. Just more ideas to rethink what is really going on, as one can over state the untruth of history of weather. Same history why drought could have destroyed other civilization before the Indians here and South America Incas.
Dave Alden November 09, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Wire, from my perspective, it was a more cool and breezy summer in Petaluma than normal. I have a small fountain in my frontyard. I need to replenish water regularly. The summer, it seemed like I had to top off the fountain once about three days compared to perhaps five days in previous summers, mostly because of the wind blowing water from the top of the fountain. Although it's certainly possible that either my perception of this summer or my memories of past summers are flawed. And that's a consistent problem with trying to "observe" climate change ourselves. A confirmation bias is a hard thing to overcome. Instead, we must look to globally averaged temperatures, which are up significantly, and the relative frequency of extreme weather events, which seem to be up although a longer observation period is required.
Wire November 25, 2012 at 06:19 AM
Dave, very good perspective out in the fountain not losing water. How about the cooler weather tomatoes produced better than the warmer weather ones the last five years. I have a rhododendron breaking out in blossom thinking it's April all ready. UN Climate Chief: Hurricane Sandy a ‘Wakeup Call’ on Climate Change http://www.theblaze.com/stories/un-climate-chief-hurricane-sandy-a-wakeup-call-on-climate-change/ Back during that Dust Bowl period 1930's to 40's you say top soil management I say the thirties drought and top soil management was the cause. The drought made the Depression worse, especially in the Great Plains. The "Great" Depression was a national and international disaster, but the Plains were hardest hit. In 1933, the average person living in North Dakota earned only $145 a year. That compared with a national average of $375, over twice as much. With no rain, farmers couldn't grow any crops. No crops meant that the wind blew bare soil high in the air creating dust storms. School was canceled because of dust storms, not snowstorms. Some farmers, in trouble because of the bad economy, were forced to give up and move out of the plains looking for work. Well: www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/water_01.html
Wire November 25, 2012 at 06:37 AM
That two year weather prediction was dead on for Thanksgiving day weather and all weekend. So many people out at the coast this last Saturday, Doran Parking was full same at the head. The poor chowder shop was so busy and no parking there either. http://theweatherwiz.com/iforcast-usaPP.php Disclaimer This science based long range weather prediction program is offered "WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; as to accuracy or outcome. Copyright belongs to "theweatherwiz.com" and requires a written permission to publish or reuse.
Wire November 25, 2012 at 06:53 AM
Did you know? I'm sure you read about the sudden death of the mammoths. Frozen carcasses and many thousands of tons of bones and tusks of woolly mammoths are buried in Siberia and Alaska. In March 2000, the Discovery Channel produced a special on the excavation of a carcass in north central Siberia, called the Jarkov mammoth. This mammoth was cut out of the permafrost and transported by helicopter into cold storage for future analysis and possible cloning.1 Mammoth remains have puzzled scientists and laymen for hundreds of years. Many explanations have been offered. One of the most popular hypotheses is that one eventful day, the hairy elephants were peacefully grazing on grass and buttercups when suddenly, tragedy struck, and millions of them froze instantly. This article examines the life and death of the woolly mammoth in Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon Territory of Canada. These areas, together with the surrounding shallow ocean (Bering Strait), are called Beringia. There are still unknowns associated with the woolly mammoth and its environment in Beringia. Some information is conflicting. However, the data is pointing to a unique environment and extinction of the woolly mammoths in Beringia. There's that caveman subhuman burning wood again causing CO2.
Wire December 04, 2012 at 04:02 PM
Dave Alden Registered Civil Engineer living in Petaluma. Any info from Qatar lately? EPA Say Heatwaves Much Worse in 1930's: 'Heat waves occurred with high frequency in the 1930s, and these remain the most severe heat waves in the U.S. historical record' 'What is surprising is that the EPA acknowledged that the 1930's saw much more severe heat waves and that there is no trend to heat waves becoming worse' Bummer: CO2-induced global warming to cause "harsh winters in the U.S. and Europe" Expert in Doha - Climate Change Is the Driver Behind Extreme Winters and Superstorm Sandy Charles H. Greene is professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and a fellow at the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. He is the author of “The Winters of Our Discontent: Loss of Arctic sea ice is stacking the deck in favor of harsh winters in the U.S. and Europe” in the upcoming December 2012 issue of Scientific America. EPA WEBSITE http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/indicators/weather-climate/heat-waves.html http://tomnelson.blogspot.com/2012/12/bummer-co2-induced-global-warming-to.html


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