Hurricane Sandy in Climate Context



There have been a few recent claims that Hurricane Sandy, which has ravaged the East Coast of the US this week, is a consequence of climate change. The most notorious of these claims, though not surprising, has come from Al Gore. The news media have reported this widely here, and here for example. However, a close and cold look at Gore’s claims shows that his position is unsubstantiated by evidence. If Sandy has been caused by climate change, then Gore’s arguments do not serve as an explanation for it. Here a few key passages from his statement:

As the oceans and atmosphere continue to warm, storms are becoming more energetic and powerful. Hurricane Sandy, and the Nashville flood, were reminders of just that. Other climate-related catastrophes around the world have carried the same message to hundreds of millions.

Sandy was also affected by other symptoms of the climate crisis. As the hurricane approached the East Coast, it gathered strength from abnormally warm coastal waters. At the same time, Sandy’s storm surge was worsened by a century of sea level rise. Scientists tell us that if we do not reduce our emissions, these problems will only grow worse.

Well, there is some historical evidence that suggests otherwise. Roger Pielke Jr. has a few posts on his blog and graphs, that normalize the storm damage and compare storms in the last century. You can see his full posts herehere and here. And the graphs below:

STORM NAME LANDFALL DATE DAMAGE RANK DAMAGE ($ 2012)
Great Miami Sep 18,1926 1 180,220,000,000
Galveston Sep 08,1900 2 105,570,000,000
Galveston Aug 17,1915 3 84,910,000,000
Katrina Aug 29,2005 4 84,620,000,000
Andrew Aug 24,1992 5 64,410,000,000
Storm 11 in 1944 Oct 19,1944 6 53,940,000,000
Donna Sep 10,1960 7 49,810,000,000
New England Sep 21,1938 8 46,840,000,000
Lake Okeechobee Sep 16,1928 9 44,890,000,000
Wilma Oct 24,2005 10 25,960,000,000
Hazel Oct 18,1954 11 24,260,000,000
Diane Aug 19,1955 12 24,110,000,000
Camille Aug 17,1969 13 23,040,000,000
Charley Aug 13,2004 14 20,380,000,000
Ike Sep 13,2008 15 20,370,000,000
Hugo Sep 21,1989 16 20,020,000,000
Carol Aug 31,1954 17 19,290,000,000
Agnes Jun 22,1972 18 19,010,000,000
Ivan Sep 16,2004 19 18,590,000,000
Storm 2 in 1949 Aug 26,1949 20 18,510,000,000

While it will be some time until we have apples to apples estimates from Sandy, the current estimates of $20 billion would place Sandy at #17 all time out of 242 loss-producng storms 1900 to present (in the top 10%). If the damage gets to $30 billion it would crack the top 10 and (top 5%). Right now it seems unlikely that Sandy will climb any higher on the table. (Note that inland flood damage is not included in the tabulations above.)

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Acerca de Ricardo S.

Ricardo Simmonds is a Master's candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His research focuses on issues of environment and philosophy and environment and religion. He is also the Director of Creatio, a Latin American founded Catholic environmental non-profit: www.creatioweb.org.

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