State of the Planet

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The Science and the Lessons of Hurricane Sandy

This post was updated on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012.

Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey shore
Tuckerton, N.J., inundated on Oct. 30 by the storm surge from Superstorm Sandy. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

After Sandy: Climate and Our Coastal Future

What are the ongoing risks faced by New York City and our other coastal communities? What does the science of climate change tell us? How can we engineer new solutions? What are the policy issues raised by the impact of this megastorm?

Experts from across Columbia University and the Earth Institute will meet Monday, Nov. 19, to discuss the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, at a forum in the Low Memorial Library Rotunda. The event is open to the Columbia community; but anyone will be able to watch the 4 p.m. event in a live webcast.

Columbia faculty from the Earth Institute, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and other schools and centers across the university have provided a key source of insight to the media, general public and policy-makers about the related issues of climate change and sustainable development in the face of rising sea levels around the globe (see media links further down in this blog post). For instance, on Sunday, Nov. 18, PBS’s NOVA program ran “Inside the Megastorm,” the first major documentary on the storm, featuring Earth Institute experts. It can be viewed on the web, and runs again on TV Wednesday, Nov. 21.

Among the speakers on Monday will be:

  • George Deodatis, professor of civil engineering, Fu Foundation School of Engineering & Applied Science
  • Ben Orlove, associate director, Climate and Society MA program, the Earth Institute; professor, School of International and Public Affairs
  • Irwin Redlener, director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Mailman School of Public Health
  • Cynthia Rosenzweig, co-chair, New York City Panel on Climate Change; senior research scientist, NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the Earth Institute
  • Adam Sobel, professor, Dept. of Applied Physics and Math, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
  • Moderator: William Glasgall, managing editor, states and municipalities, Bloomberg News

This university-wide conversation is co-sponsored by The Earth Institute, Office of the Executive Vice President for Research and World Leaders Forum.


Hurricane Sandy, New York City, subways, MTA
A flooded subway station, thanks to Superstorm Sandy. Photo: MTA

Nov. 12: The storm has passed, but it has stirred up a fresh debate, perhaps long overdue, about climate change, and it has a lot of people rethinking what they know, or think they know.

Will we act on climate change, and what should we do?

For an interview on the CBS News’ Sunday Morning, David Pogue of the New York Times distilled the issue down to three basic questions for a piece titled, “The Scientific Truth about Climate Change”:

  • Is there climate change?
  • Are WE causing it?
  • And if so, is there anything we can do about it?

Pogue may be well behind most of the scientists at the Earth Institute, but given how little attention the issue got in the presidential campaign, not to mention in the general media over the past few years, many folks are now coming to the conversation with these kinds of questions.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientist John Mutter was among those interviewed by Pogue – all of whom answered strongly in the affirmative to all three questions.

Over at Scientific American, NASA-Goddard Institute scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig got to talk about one of her favorite subjects, cities and climate. The question and answer on Nov. 9, “How to Improve Coastal Cities Climate Resilience,” was conducted by David Biello, who writes about energy and sustainability. Rosenzweig also works at the Center for Climate Systems Research.

“Virtually everything that happened [after Sandy] had been highlighted in our reports,” Rosenzweig said. “What we’re doing now is going over the science of Hurricane Sandy and identifying the scientific work that needs to be done. One [task] is this key issue of redefining the one-in-100-year storm.”

But does Sandy change the climate change conversation? She told SciAm: “Is this a tipping point? I think it is, in terms of response. I don’t think in six months people are going to say ‘Hurricane Sandy, what was that?’ Certainly not in the New York metropolitan region.”

Here are two other recent interviews by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists:

Climate Science and Sandy
WNYC Brian Lehrer – Nov 15, 2012
Discussion with Radley Horton and Ben Orlove

Despite Risk, Many Can’t Resist Living by the Water
NPR Talk of the Nation – Nov 12, 2012
Interview with Klaus Jacob

The Weather: Going to Extremes
NBC Nightly News – Nov 12, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel

2011 report on NYV vulnerability to flooding
An illustration of the potential flood level from a Category 2 storm, from a 2011 report on East Coast vulnerability to sea level rise.

Nov. 8: A nor’easter coming on top of Superstorm Sandy? Enough already! But, of course, it just underscores the vulnerability of New York, and other coastal regions, to bad weather. And, the need to better prepare for the worst.

In Scientific American Wednesday, Klaus Jacob of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory talks about “How to Survive the Next Big Storm.”

For the NOAA site, Brian Kahn talked to Cynthia Rosenzweig about sea level rise, Sandy and how it all tied together — and what we should expect in the future for the New York region. Rosenzweig, a climate scientist with the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Center for Climate Systems Research, worked on a report in 2001 called the “Metropolitan East Coast Report: Climate Change and a Global City,” which identified key vulnerabilities – including flooding of the tunnels and subways, damage to energy infrastructure and inundation of coastal communities.

Some other Earth Institute connections on the media in recent days:

Sea Walls
NPR On Point – Nov 8, 2012
Interview with Radley Horton, Center for Climate Systems Research

Climate Change Scientist Was Right About Subway Flooding, Hurricane Damage
WNYC – Nov 5, 2012
Posting of and commentary on Earth Institute video interview with Klaus Jacob

Hurricane Sandy: What Went Wrong
MSNBC – Nov 3, 2012
Panel discussion with Klaus Jacob, NJ Gov. Chris Christie and others

Sandy Recovery: Walls Won’t Stop Superstorms
Salon – Nov 6, 2012
Features Klaus Jacob and James Hansen (NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

Hurricane Sandy Blows Climate Change Back on the Table
Christian Science Monitor – Nov 6, 2012
Quotes Radley Horton of the Center for Climate Systems Research

Sandy May Have Long-Term Effects on Public Health
ClimateWire – Nov 6, 2012
Quotes Radley Horton

Extremely Bad Weather
Science News – Nov 2, 2012
Quotes Richard Seager, Lamont-Doherty

Hurricane Sandy: Is Climate Change to Blame?
The Week – Oct 31, 2012
Quotes Adam Sobel, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory



Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan
Looking towards Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge Wednesday night. Photo: Florin Negrutiu


Nov. 5: Cold is setting in, making life all the more miserable for those in New Jersey and the many New York neighborhoods who have lost their homes or remain without power and other services. The city’s schools are trying to recover, too, shifting from refugee centers back to classrooms.

While the region continues its struggle to come back, many are starting to reflect on the lessons learned and how we can better prepare for the next hit from Mother Nature. From his flooded-out home north of the city, Earth Institute scientist Klaus Jacob spoke to NPR’s “Living on Earth” program about the effects of climate change on New York City.

Earth Institute Director Jeffrey D. Sachs, talked to Tom Keene and Scarlet Fu on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance” program about Sandy, climate change and the presidential election that comes to a head tomorrow. “It’s a sign of how weird our politics are that climate wasn’t an issue in this election,” Sachs said.

Institute Executive Director Steve Cohen’s parents and two sisters live in Long Beach, New York, and he was out there Saturday to check on them, and on his own summer home.

“I was impressed by the spirit of my neighbors and the visible presence of government everywhere,” he writes on the Huffington Post website. “I saw a policeman give a box of MREs (meals ready to eat) to an elderly woman and then patiently explain to her how to prepare the meal for use. … I saw teenagers walking down the street distributing bottled water from a red wagon to anyone who needed it. While Long Beach had temporarily lost electricity, water and sewage, it had not lost its soul and spirit.”

A couple of other media pieces featuring Earth Institute people:

Adapt or Die
Foreign Policy – Nov 2, 2012
Quotes John Mutter, Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute

Protecting New York City After Sandy
CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) – Nov 2, 2012
Interview with Earth Institute scientist Radley Horton, Center for Climate Systems Research

And in case you missed it, Horton was on the latest edition of NPR’s Science Friday:
As Storm Recovery Continues, Looking to the Future
NPR Science Friday – Nov 2, 2012


Nov. 2: The “superstorm” has passed leaving us all wondering what’s ahead. Cold wind and dark clouds, plus a hint of a possible nor’easter coming next week have enhanced the mood, post-Sandy.

Will this happen again, and how can cities like New York better prepare? How much will it cost to recover from the storm, and what sort of bills lie ahead as we try to figure out how to shore up neighborhoods, subways and all the other infrastructure?

Reports and studies have been imagining events like Sandy for years now; so why were so few people ready to listen? And will this lead to a serious conversation about climate change in the halls of power?

Again, Earth Institute scientists have been roaming the airwaves and news pages, talking about the storm, its aftermath, and the work ahead.

Tomorrow (Saturday) morning at 8, Klaus Jacob of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory will join other guests on UP with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, for a discussion of Hurricane Sandy, disaster preparedness and the politics of global warming.

On Sunday at 8 p.m., the Weather Channel’s scheduled special documentary, “Sandy — Anatomy of a Superstorm,” features Lamont-Doherty’s Adam Sobel.

Radley Horton, an expert on extreme weather and urban infrastructure, has helped New York assess how it might cope with climate change; he spoke to Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday, along with Andrew Revkin, the New York Times’ Dot Earth reporter and blogger; New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert; and Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy. The topic: The city’s vulnerabilities, and how to plan for future storms.

Some other appearances by Earth Institute experts:

Subway Flooding Predicted, Eerily Matches Climate Change Model
NPR Transportation Nation, Nov. 1, 2012
Klaus Jacob quoted from earlier interview with Andrea Bernstein.

Fixing NYC’s Underground Power Grid Is No Easy Task
NPR Morning Edition – Nov 2, 2012
Interview with Roger Anderson of Lamont-Doherty

Subway Flooding Prediction Eerily Matches Climate-Change Model
NPR Marketplace – Nov 1, 2012
Interview with Klaus Jacob

Sandy Provides Wake-Up Call for Cities at Risk of Flooding
NBC News – Nov 1, 2012
Interview with Cynthia Rosenzweig of the Center for Climate Systems Research

Subway Chaos and the Man Who Saw It Coming
Business Week – Oct 31, 2012
Feature on scientist Klaus Jacob

Please Explain: Predicting the Weather
WNYC Leonard Lopate – Nov 2, 2012
With Adam Sobel

Rising Sea Levels Are Serious
New York Times, Room for Debate – Nov. 2, 2012
With Cynthia Rosenzweig


Nov. 1: The evening view from across the East River tells a tale of two cities: downtown Manhattan mostly shut down, without power, subways and most services; uptown Manhattan brightly lit, subways running, businesses and neighborhoods climbing back to some kind of usual.

In Brooklyn, families from relatively unscathed neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens gathered at PS 29 Thursday to donate food and supplies for the worse-off in flooded-out Red Hook. On the crowded morning commute across the bridges, with three people per vehicle now required, those with cars picked up strangers to come along for the ride. Stories like that pop up all around the boroughs: Two cities, coming together.

But the wake of Sandy is full of questions that will take awhile to answer, and that need attention from all of us:

  • Why did so much infrastructure fail? The storm challenged the power grid, the systems for food, water, sanitation and transportation. Can we rebuild it smarter?
  • Scores of people died, and hundreds of thousands were stranded in high-rises, or flooded and burned out of their homes. Is there a better way to build to protect people from such disasters?
  • Is there a connection between Sandy’s wrath and climate change? Should we expect more such storms in the future? What can we do about that?
  • How much will all this cost us?
  • What will be the cultural and political impact of this superstorm? In particular, will it affect the election next Tuesday?
Manhattan, Hurricane Sandy
Lower Manhattan, powerless, on Oct. 31. Photo: D. Funkhouser

There’s plenty of conversation going on about all this already. On the Connecticut public radio show “Where We Live,” on WNPR, Earth Institute Executive Director Steve Cohen joined others talking about building more resilient cities.

On Democracy Now, Cynthia Rosenzweig of the Center for Climate Systems Research and the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies talked about New York’s vulnerabilities to extreme weather events. She had a hand in two studies, one done a decade ago, that foretold some of what came to pass this week.

Earth Institute researcher Radley Horton spoke to Terry Gross on NPR radio’s “Fresh Air” about climate and the future after Sandy — what do rising sea level, warming oceans and disappearing Arctic sea ice have to do with it?

On the New York news site CapitalNewYork, reporter Dana Rubenstein spoke with Lamont-Doherty scientist Klaus Jacob and others for her piece, “There could be worse: What New York isn’t doing (yet) about the next storm.”

Here are more articles and broadcasts following up on the storm:

High-Def Storm Models Yielded Accurate Predictions
NPR All Things Considered – Oct 31, 2012
Interview with Earth Institute professor Adam Sobel

3-D Maps Pictured Sandy’s Devastation—Five Years Ago
Inside Climate News – Nov 1, 2012
Features Center for Climate Systems Research scientist Radley Horton

Hurricane Fatalities in New York Keep Mounting
Capital New York – Nov. 1, 2012
Interview with Earth Institute professor John Mutter

Sandy Just Latest Example of Climate Change’s Threat
Voice of Russia  – Oct 31, 2012
Interview with Ben Orlove (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions)

Experts: Civil Disorder Not Likely in Sandy’s Wake
Asbury Park Press – Nov 1, 2012
Quotes Earth Institute professor John Mutter

Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change
The New Yorker – Oct 30, 2012
Quotes study from Goddard Institute for Space Studies

New York Was Warned About Hurricane Danger Six Years Ago
Mother Jones – Oct 30, 2012
Quotes Ben Orlove (CRED) and study by Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?
Scientific American – Oct 30, 2012
Quotes James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies


Oct. 31: Two days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to lower Manhattan and shut down the New York transit system, the city is struggling to recover. It’s hard to say yet how long that will take.

Klaus Jacob, a scientist with the Earth Institute, said the storm is a “wake-up call” for New York and other cities around the world to address aging infrastructure and better prepare for coastal flooding. The call comes in even louder if you consider the prospect of rising sea levels and more extreme weather events from global warming.

“We had one wake-up call last year under the name of Irene. We got away with less than we will most likely incur from Sandy,” Jacob said in an interview with the BBC. “The question is how many wake-up calls do we need to get out of our snoozing, sleeping, dreaming morning attitude? We have to get into action. We have to set priorities and spend money. For every one dollar invested in protection you get a return of four dollars of not incurred losses.”

Hurricane Sandy, Brooklyn Heights, Manhattan view
Looking across the East River toward Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, 3 p.m. Monday. Photo: D. Funkhouser

Jacob is one of many Earth Institute experts talking to the media about storm preparedness and the atmospheric science behind this devastating storm. Jacob also spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the difficulties faced by crews working to get the subway system back in service (see “Salt Water Puts Subway in Jeopardy”). And Adam Sobel, a professor of climate and atmospheric science, spoke on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC.

Sobel also wrote a great explanation on of how the weather systems that kicked up Sandy’s power converged on us.

Anthropologist Ben Orlove wrote for the CNN website about a survey he and colleagues are doing on how people perceive the threats from such storms — and how people can misunderstand the widespread potential for damage (as occurred last year in Vermont and upstate New York from Hurricane Irene).

If you’re into the science behind the storm, check out some other news coverage featuring Earth Institute experts.

New York Subways May Be Crippled for Extended Period
Associated Press – Oct 31, 2012
Features Lamont-Doherty scientist Klaus Jacob

Sandy’s Storm Surge May Be Lesson for Big-City Infrastructure
NBC News – Oct 30, 2012
Interviews with Radley Horton (CCSR) and Klaus Jacob (LDEO)

New York and New Jersey Cope With Catastrophe
NY Channel 13 – Oct 30, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel (LDEO) (13:12-18:52)

The Perfect Storm
ABC 20/20- Oct 30, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel  (LDEO)

Q&A, Hurricane Sandy
Columbia  Engineering School – Oct 31, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel (LDEO)

Why Hurricane Sandy Will Be Historic
Time – Oct 29, 2012

We’d All Be Safe and Dry Now
Slate – Oct 30, 2012

In Storm’s Wake, Climate Change Raises Stakes for New York
CNN – Oct 29 2012

The Article That Predicted the New York Subway Storm Surge Problem
The Atlantic

How Much Will Sandy Cost the US Economy?
The Atlantic – Oct 29, 2012

Shallow Waters, Unusual Path May Worsen Storm Surge
New York Times – Oct 29, 2012

Expert Warns of New York City Subway Flooding
New York magazine – Oct. 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy liveblog: Which way is Sandy headed? The latest ‘Frankenstorm’ track
Christian Science Monitor – Oct 29, 2012

Report on Hurricane Sandy
Sky News – Oct 29, 2012

Morningside prepares for Hurricane Sandy
Columbia Spectator – Oct 28, 2012


**Sea Walls

NPR On Point – Nov 8, 2012

Interview with Radley Horton, CCSR


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Jessica N
Jessica N
11 years ago

It’s really sad to hear on the news that 50 people died…. I really didn’t think much of this storm, and obviously that was the wrong mind set. My own family is trapped in their city because all exits are flooded out. I hope their recovery is swift, and I really hope everyone gathers around to help.

11 years ago

[…] supply of legal services.  On the science front, our counterparts at the Columbia Earth Institute point to the questions Sandy poses for climate change, infrastructure management, and building design, some of which will likely […]