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Scientists on Hurricane Sandy & Climate Change

“It’s Not Going to Go Away”

Bostinno photo

By Steve Annear

Less than a day after Superstorm Sandy destroyed homes, flooded subway systems in New York City, uprooted trees and left millions without power along the East Coast, state officials in Massachusetts called for an “urgent” conversation about pollution and its role in causing global warming and “intensifying extreme weather events.”

“For this superstorm to occur so late in the storm season, reach such fury, and have the kinds of flooding impacts that we are seeing, is fully consistent with what scientists have told us we should expect due to global warming,” said Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey in a statement Tuesday. “It’s time to admit the obvious fact that climate change is here.

Markey, a Democrat and member of the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, said warmer water in the Atlantic Ocean is fueling storms like Hurricane Sandy, and the problem is rooted in air pollution.

“The seas are higher, and the dramatic changes in the Arctic are potentially altering the path of storms hundreds of miles away,” he said. “Climate change is no longer some far off issue; it’s at our doorstep. We must consider how to address the underlying factors that are fueling these extreme weather events.”

Hurricane Sandy, which turned into a Tropical Storm once making landfall in New Jersey on Monday night, produced massive coastal flooding, 80 m.p.h winds and was the cause of 44 deaths in the United States.

As of 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 90,000 residents in the Bay State were still without power.

The storm is being heralded as one of the most destructive in recent history, with damage estimates reaching at least $10 billion, and already, scientists are agreeing with Markey that global warming could have been a factor.

“We can think about how to build seawalls and adapt and cope. But in the long term, unless we mitigate climate change —that’s reducing our cause—our children will not be able to adapt to what will come,” said Juliette Rooney-Varga, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at UMass Lowell. “It’s not something we can wait to do. The clock is ticking; We need to start this [conversation] now.”

Rooney-Varga, who is the Director of the Climate-Change Initiative, said if we don’t address the causes of climate change, such as fossil fuel emissions, Americans are bound to face “more and more extreme damage” with “more tremendous suffering” that we will not be able to recover from.

“If we don’t start to have a longer term view, this problem is not going to go away. Rebuilding is costly, but it also offers an opportunity for change and there are some questions we should be asking ourselves as we are moving forward,” she said.

Rooney-Varga said there are three major reasons we should take Hurricane Sandy as a warning of what is to come; warmer weather, rising sea levels and more frequent and extreme weather events.

Last week, prior to Sandy making landfall and wiping out homes up and down the East Coast, Markey released a report on climate change effects in New England.

In his report he outlined these same issues, including the changing ocean temperatures, increases in “extreme downpours,” and rising sea levels in Massachusetts, which he said, are “two to four times faster than the global average.”

“Scientists, we have a tendency to focus on what’s interesting to us, and what’s interesting to us is what’s uncertain. Unfortunately, I think as a result, what happens is we confuse the public by going on and on about what’s uncertain,” said Rooney-Varga. “But in this case, it is certain what we are looking at. There is just uncertainty about how extreme it will be.”