State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Eye on the Storm

adam sobel ocean breeze
Author Adam Sobel in the hard-hit Staten Island neighborhood of Ocean Breeze, a year after Hurricane Sandy. Yellow band high on the utility pole records the flood level; as the sign indicates, residents still hadn’t been able to return to their homes. (Courtesy Marit Larson)

Atmospheric scientist Adam Sobel is author of the new book Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. Sobel, a native New Yorker, was at the center of the historic 2012 storm in more ways than one. As an expert in extreme weather and its relation to climate, he was one of the first researchers to explain to media and the public what might be brewing, before the storm hit. In the aftermath, he looked closely at the factors driving the storm’s unusual ferocity, and how these played against human weaknesses. The book offers a primer on what drives storm systems, and what we know (and don’t) about their relation to warming climate. Sobel also looks into future weather, urban infrastructure and the politics of global climate change. He recently discussed some of his insights. Sobel is a professor at Columbia University’s Engineering School and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. (Learn more at his Storm Surge blog.) 

Q. To what extent are “natural disasters” truly natural, as opposed to humans playing a role?
A. A disaster needs the natural event plus human vulnerability.  Although the trend in hurricanes is not detectably upward recently, the trend in economic damage is rapidly upward. That’s because of the growing concentration of people, infrastructure and wealth on vulnerable coastlines. In the United States, the coasts are being developed by the wealthiest people, which puts a lot of money in harm’s way. In the developing world, it’s sometimes the opposite: the coastlines are often settled by the poorest people, which puts a lot of life in harm’s way.  Either way, we are developing the coastlines without much regard for the hazards.

How does Hurricane Sandy fit in our latest understanding of how climate affects weather?
The world climate is warming due to greenhouse gases. But there are many uncertainties in how that affects weather. In fact many of us, my colleagues and I, often talk about the uncertainties so much, we don’t emphasize what we do know. First of all, you can never attribute any one storm to climate change.  But you can ask: is a storm like Sandy more probable? Many of the best models indicate there may actually be fewer hurricanes in the future, at least globally–but we do think the hurricanes are going to get more intense. Sandy was an unusual storm, with a complicated scenario that isn’t related to climate change in any way we understand yet. One could say that Sandy could have happened hundreds of years ago, and so global warming wasn’t required for it.  But because of human-induced climate change, we know that sea level is rising, and that added the better part of a foot to the total flood level. In the future, the level will go up more, and that will greatly increase the chance of coastal flooding, even if the storms themselves don’t change.  The bottom line is, we’re quite certain that our risk for major disasters is going up, even though many details of the storm risk are much more uncertain.

You probably get excited when some big weather comes along. Were you thrilled, or chilled, to see Sandy approach, and hit?
Oh, all of the above. I started being mildly excited, then more excited, then turning to fear. I knew well enough not to think the warnings were overblown. Although I was very afraid of it, I was also very pumped up. The media was calling me all the time. My kids were very excited, because they knew they were going to get off from school. When I put my older son to bed on Sunday [the day before], he said “Happy Hurricane, Dad!”

I think many people saw Sept. 11, 2001, as a hinge point in how they saw the world. Was Hurricane Sandy that kind of moment?
When Sept. 11 hit, it seemed to come from nowhere, and it was easy to imagine that something even worse might come at any time. Sandy wasn’t that. It had been imagined quite clearly long before, by many people who envisioned how the subways would flood and everything else, due to climate change. But it was amazing to watch the attitudes of the general populace, media and politicians evolve. You could really see that the politicians didn’t have canned responses for it. But the groundwork had been laid, because there was a scientific elite in place that had already described this storm in the future tense. The larger society was then saturated with media coverage. We started hearing about “the new normal,” that this was a “wakeup call.” Well, those are clichés, and the “new normal” is maybe a bit of an overreaction. But it seems like there was a new awareness. 

How well was the immediate emergency handled?
All things considered, pretty well. Evacuating some neighborhoods and closing down the transit system were the right decisions. Probably the worst decision was not evacuating nursing homes and medical facilities. But it’s easy to second-guess. In the immediate aftermath, in places where government wasn’t getting in, you had the Occupy movement and volunteers from other organizations that did a lot of the work assisting those most in need. So the system worked, even in instances where there was no official system.

How well has government responded to the long-term issues?
Some of the more obvious, less difficult things are getting done. Power stations that blew out are going to have much higher seawalls. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is working, and already has a new submarine-quality door on their switch room for the N and R lines.  Mayor Bloomberg’s team put out a city plan that was really impressive. But then he left office, and the money isn’t necessarily there, so I don’t know how much of the longer-term stuff is really going to happen. One thing we need is a more serious discussion about getting people out of areas where it’s unwise for them to live. But it’s hard to ask people to leave. The first thing Bloomberg said was, we’re not retreating from the waterfront. Well, some day, you probably have to, so there’s a bit of denial there. We’ll have to wait and see–the legacy is still being laid down.

Were you or people close to you personally affected by the storm?
My family was lucky—we were on high ground. There were tree branches falling, and pieces of buildings falling off, but we didn’t lose anything except the subway. One thing I did hear a lot about was, there were two little kids in Staten Island swept away by water as their mom was trying to get them out of the car. For several days, the police couldn’t find them. My wife works for the Parks Department, and it was an employee of hers, a guy who knew the nearby wetlands, who finally did. He told the cops, look, I know these swamps. And he went in and he found their bodies.

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