The huge superstorm Sandy has left a path of destruction across the eastern seaboard and everyone's wondering — was this insanely intense storm that some are calling a once a century event related to climate change?
Some researchers will say yes, it's likely that the two are related. Their theory goes that warmer waters inject more energy into tropical storms — so climate change could very well be to blame for the increasing incidence of large and dangerous storms. These warmer waters could also be making the hurricanes form faster, recent studies have suggested.
The evidence that this link is real is mounting. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Oct. 15 used tide records dating back to 1923 to show that the severity of hurricanes is increasing. Specifically warmer years are associated with greater numbers of storms and stronger storms. They are also associated with bigger storm surges, one of the biggest issues that brought New York City and New Jersey down. Sandy's storm surge in lower Manhattan reached almost 14 feet, the largest ever recorded in the area.
An earlier study, published in Geophysical Research Letters in May, also suggested the rising ocean temperatures are increasing the intensity of storms. The researchers, led by Dev Niyogi of Purdue University, used satellite data from the last 25 years to see if these tropical cyclones are changing over time. They found that the storms are tending to intensify quicker, and they end up being higher category storms.
A third study, led by James Elsner, of Florida State University, looked at hurricane data from across the world between 1981 and 2006. They published their data in the journal Nature in 2008. They found a 31 percent increase in strong storms (those in the top fifth in a ranking of storms by their intensities), from 13 to 17 strong cyclones for a 1.8º F rise in ocean temperature.
This could be one reason why this year's hurricane season has been so bad — with 19 named storms. We are even running out of names and still have a whole month left in which more storms can form. This year we've also set thousands of high temperature records, and it has been named "the hottest year on record" in the United States.
This doesn't mean that warm water is the only thing that makes hurricanes strong, but it's one factor that may be influencing the trend toward stronger and larger storms. Sandy, for instance, was also impacted by the full moon, which increased high tides — though there's no doubt this was an incredibly large, dangerous storm even without the moon.
This was partially because of the presence of a snow storm coming from the West that has had a big effect on how the storm progresses. It's currently parked on the East coast, sending feet of snow down in Western Virginia. Hopefully the storm will head North soon.
As we predicted when Hurricane Issac made landfall earlier this year, these extreme weather events will continue getting stronger and more severe.
As I wrote in August: "If hurricanes get bigger, stronger and more frequent, one nightmare scenario may just become a reality: Thousands of lives could be lost and billions of dollars of damage done if a large, strong hurricane made landfall in New York City, the way Hurricane Irene did in 2011."
Those words seem sadly prophetic, now that that's what Sandy has become. Let's hope these monster East coast storms don't become a frequent event, though the melting Arctic sea ice could increase sea temperatures even higher, influencing our weather here.
This year, the Arctic sea ice reached its lowest levels on record. This melt is just going to get worse, researchers predict.
If we end up having a summer in which all the sea ice in the Arctic melts, it could have a major impact on storms and the strength of our winters. Some researchers have suggested that this could even happen within the next decade. The sea ice, when it's there, cools down the waters because it reflects sunlight away from the oceans. If the ice is gone, the dark waters will absorb more sunlight, and the ocean will get even warmer.
This spiral of warming could mean more spiraling tropical cyclones in the future.
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