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More Extreme Weather: America Prepares for Hurricane Sandy’s Impacts

This post was co-authored by Forbes Tompkins, an intern with WRI's Climate and Energy Program.

With much of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast bracing themselves for Hurricane Sandy's landfall, it’s important to note the human toll this hurricane has already left in its wake. At least 39 lives were lost in Haiti and Cuba, and more than 3,000 buildings were damaged in eastern Cuba alone by the hurricane.

Many are predicting that this storm will bring significant damage to United States. If Sandy hits with full force, the Mid-Atlantic could face rainfall totals between 3 and 7 inches in Washington, D.C., historic flooding along the coasts, and widespread power outages resulting from wind gusts that could exceed 60 mph. The storm could exceed the impacts of Hurricane Irene, in August 2011, which brought record rainfall and cost nearly $10 billion in damage.

States along the eastern seaboard are preparing for the storm. Governor Christie ordered the evacuation of New Jersey’s barrier islands and closure of the state’s casinos by 4 p.m. Sunday. Governor Cuomo ordered New York City’s transit service to suspend bus, subway, and commuter rail service starting at 7 p.m. Sunday.

The Climate Change Connection

As the storm bears down on the United States, many people are also wondering what the connections are to climate change and how global warming may be indirectly contributing to this system. Although uncertainty remains regarding climate change’s direct impact on tropical cyclone frequency and intensity, it is well-established that global warming has resulted in global sea level rise. This is particularly concerning for the northeastern United States coastline, where the rate of sea level rise is four times faster than the global average. Such increases can exacerbate storm surge from hurricanes, extending damage from coastal flooding further inland and making storms like Sandy more of a threat to residents within – and in close proximity to – Northeast coastal areas.

We explored these issues earlier this year when Hurricane Isaac hit the Gulf Coast. Isaac was only a category 1 hurricane when it made landfall, reportedly bringing up to 14 feet of storm surge, causing widespread power outages, and creating other costly damages to coastal infrastructure and property. Meanwhile, New York City – which has 48 major transit facilities 10 feet or fewer above sea level – will be placed at even greater risk to storm surge if sea level rise continues to accelerate.

Hurricane Sandy is expected to cause significant damage, adding to this year’s growing number of costly extreme climatic and weather events that have each taken their toll on the United States as well as on many other parts the world.(You can view many of these events on WRI’s Extreme Weather Timeline).

While the subject of climate change has been largely absent on the campaign trail, we are seeing increased impacts on the ground. As scientists become better at identifying links between climate change and many types of extreme weather, the recent record makes clear that action to address the global warming threat is urgently needed.

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