November 30–the day that many of us in the coastal Southeast can breathe a sigh of relief that hurricane season finally “officially” ends. Many of us can give thanks that we came through yet another hurricane season without too much damage, while others of us may still be recovering from impacts from one of the most active hurricane seasons on record.
In all, we had 19 named Atlantic storms this year, 10 of which made hurricane status. This puts 2012 in a tie for the third most active hurricane season on record, despite pre-season predictions of a “near-normal” year. In all, the toll of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season was 320 lives and an estimated $70 billion in damages, qualifying it for the second most expensive hurricane season on record, almost entirely due to Hurricane Sandy.
The 2012 hurricane season also deserves mention for some of its more unique characteristics. In fact, the season was unique from the moment it started a full two weeks ahead of schedule with Tropical Storm Alberto. The rest of the season was littered with records or near records such as most powerful pre-season storm (Beryl), earliest fourth named storm (Debby), the first time we’ve had four named storms by the end of June, and a smattering of earlier-than-usual storms throughout the season.
Unfortunately, some of the uniqueness of this hurricane season may not be so unique in upcoming years, as climate change makes increasingly extreme weather the ‘new norm.’
It is worth noting that even though the chances of any given year having 19 or more named storms is approximately just 3 percent, this is the third year in a row in which this has happened–three consecutive years of defying the odds. And while climate models don’t necessarily predict more frequent Atlantic hurricanes in a warming world, they do predict more intense storms that cause more flooding and more damage. That may be one reason why two-thirds of the most expensive insured disasters between 1970 and 2011 have occurred in just the past 11 years. We have documented the increasing frequency of climate change-fueled extreme weather on our blog in 2011 and 2012 and the only way to describe it is tragic. Tragic for the lives lost, the livelihoods taken away, and the homes destroyed.
If the hurricane season of 2012 is but one thing, it’s a wake up call to the millions of homes affected by Superstorm Sandy that global warming is here and it is responsible for the tragedies playing out in front of us today.
The Lessons of Sandy
As the Northeast continues to recover from Hurricane Sandy, the lessons learned from the storm are becoming readily apparent. While we in the Southeast can learn many lessons from Sandy’s strike, perhaps the number one take-away is “PAY ATTENTION!”
Lesson #1: Global warming isn’t dead.
Sandy may end up playing a pivotal role in the public response to climate change in the United States. The storm served as a wake-up call to Americans lulled into climate complacency and was a shot in the arm to the nearly nonexistent conversation about climate change in recent political discourse. In spite of being the most expensive election season in history, any mention of climate change during the campaigns was essentially nil by the top two presidential contenders. As if Mother Nature was telling us to wake up, hurricane Isaac initially put the issue on the national scene when it struck the Republican National Convention in Tampa in September. That storm went on to score a direct hit on Louisiana where many are still recovering from that “worse than Katrina – as far as water goes” storm.
Isaac primed the pumps, but Sandy blew global warming into the public sphere on the eve of the election. Suddenly public figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg prominently declared support for climate action and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resolved to “get serious once and for all [… and] reduce the energy consumption that contributes to climate change” in an op-ed titled “We Will Lead On Climate Change.” It’s no wonder that new polling suggests that a strong majority of Americans across the political spectrum now support climate action in the face of increasingly severe and yet increasingly common weather events.
In spite of Washington’s recent silence about global warming, it is no less of an issue than it was just a few years ago when global warming seemed to be the hot issue on the Hill. In fact, recent reports point to the opposite: that the imperative for climate action is growing at an alarming rate and that if we don’t act significantly soon, we may be in for a tough time ahead. Bill McKibben argued in this summer’s Rolling Stone article that at the current rate of burning fossil fuels, we will have “locked in” a dangerous amount of warming in just 16 years from now. An International Energy Agency report from earlier this month affirmed this claim, saying that continuing our current energy regime may “lock us in” as early as 2017.
As scientists have warned us for far too long, the window on maintaining our climate as we know it is closing. We need to transition our energy infrastructure away from polluting fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas, and move to clean renewable energy. We also need to implement carbon sequestration schemes on a massive scale. Sandy has hopefully awakened enough Americans to start taking this challenge seriously.
Lesson #2: Reacting to extreme weather is costly.
Sandy’s toll included at least 190 deaths, $70 billion in damages, many days of lost productivity, and untold anguish for affected families. Behind Katrina, Sandy was the second costliest storm in U.S. history. With FEMA and the federal flood insurance program nearly out of money to cover the flood damage, we must recognize that the longer we take to address global warming, the more it will cost us. The costs of addressing global warming are large, but the price of inaction is staggering. The estimates of how much we will save by acting sooner rather than later vary from fourfold to twentyfold, but the consensus is that if we don’t pay now, we will pay much more later.
Lesson #3: We dodged a bullet this time. How many more can we dodge?
As seems to happen too often in the Southeast, we see a tropical storm heading our way while it’s still a few days away and dismiss it with the assumption it will blow off somewhere else. It happened to be true—to an extent—this time. But it won’t always hit somewhere else.
As Brian McNoldy of University of Miami reports, we have been beating the odds for too long by not receiving a major hurricane strike (category 3-5). The last major hurricane strike on the U.S. was Wilma in 2005–seven years ago. By next hurricane season, it will be 8 years– the longest streak since 1900. As McNoldy says, “Never in known history has the U.S. been so fortunate in avoiding the devastation brought on by category 3-5 hurricane landfalls. One doesn’t need to be a fortune teller to predict that such a streak will end eventually, and hopefully this long vacation that we’ve enjoyed hasn’t made us complacent.”
We have been in a safety bubble, so to speak, that is bound to burst sometime and eventually, instead of hitting somewhere else, it very well could hit your home. In fact, we in the Southeast have plenty of first hand experience of hurricanes hitting home, which brings me to my next point…
Lesson #4: Storm surge + sea level rise = severe flooding.
We’re no stranger to hurricanes here in the Southeast. We have solid precedents of what happens when a hurricane blows through town: Hugo, Andrew, Katrina, Rita, Wilma… We’ve seen hurricanes’ wrath in its full ugly force. Each of these hurricanes was a disaster in its own right and the sad thing is that as the sea level rises due to global warming, if these storms happened today, they would be even more devastating.
It doesn’t take much of a rise in sea level to affect how much more land gets flooded in a big storm. As Ben Strauss from Climate Central states, “In some places it takes only a few inches of sea-level rise to convert a once in a century storm to a once in a decade storm.” For this reason it is especially concerning that a new report finds that sea level is rising at 3.2 mm per year (approximately 1/8th inch), about 60% faster than was projected just a few years ago and another study released earlier this year reported that the East Coast of the U.S. is experiencing the fastest rate of sea level rise in the entire world (3 to 4 times as fast as the global average). Climate Central’s Surging Seas report from earlier this year informed us that sea level rise has already doubled the risk of 100-year floods in perhaps two-thirds of American coastal cities and future sea level rise ups the ante even more. We have seen global warming impacts play out in fast-forward with New York getting slammed with Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Hurricane Sandy in a matter of just 14 months. Governor Cuomo made a pointed joke of the fact recently, quipping that New York “has a 100-year flood every two years now.” While much of these events’ flooding has occurred inland and not directly as a result of sea level rise, it is indicative of what coastal cities may be looking at in a changing climate. So now thinking about our legendary Southeastern hurricanes, imagine if they were magnified by the effects of sea level rise in 10, 20, 50, or 100 years from now with many extra inches of sea level.
What would it look like if Sandy hit your town?
This, to me, is a very interesting question, and one I strongly encourage you took look into if you live near the coast. Fortunately some very good organizations have helped us to visualize the answer to that question.
Recent efforts have included some good interactive flood maps on which you can adjust the amount of sea level rise and/or storm surge to see what your town might look like, such as this New York Times feature from last Sunday. For general purposes, I’ll point you toward Climate Central’s Surging Seas Web Tool, which allows you to enter your zip code and see how various flood scenarios might play out in your locale. Another nationwide tool is being developed by NOAA, the Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer, which currently has all of the West Coast and much of the Gulf Coast and Southeast coast completed. If you are fortunate enough to live on the beautiful Florida Keys, you are also lucky to have a fantastic sea level rise viewer available through The Nature Conservancy at CoastalResilience.org. This tool is so specific that you can locate your home’s parcel and see how it will be affected by sea level rise and storm surge. It also features some Gulf Coast locations and areas outside the region.
Just for reference, try adding 9 feet or 3 meters, which was Sandy’s approximate surge, to the sea level on these maps and see what happens. What does your town look like? And then imagine if the flooding came twice a day with each high tide rather than just by hurricane.
Still images of some key Southeastern towns are located at the end of this post, courtesy of Architecture 2030’s Nation Under Siege Project.
Big picture lessons learned from Sandy will continue to be understood as cleanup and rebuilding proceeds. Topics that need to be addressed in the wake of Sandy are many and diverse. What kind of adaptation measures will best prepare us for living in a warming world? How do we transition away from dirty fuels and centralized energy infrastructure that left millions without power and toward distributed, resilient power sources? Is now finally the time to reconsider federal climate action? How about closer to home… do we need to be adopting renewable energy goals in state or local government or for our homes and businesses? But the biggest question we will need to answer is how we will act to leave this world a better place for our children.
As we turn our calendar page to December 1 it would be wise to ask ourselves: how many more hurricane seasons can we afford to stand idly by and just hope for the best? Taking action on global warming today is the best hedge against disaster tomorrow.
If you would like to take action to fight global warming, please visit CleanEnergy.org to find out how you can help.
All images below are from Architecture 2030’s Nation Under Siege Project.