Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy?

Posted November 12, 2012 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 12, 2012 7:25 p.m. EST

— Fierce winds, ferocious rain, tidal surges and flooding are just part of life along North Carolina's Outer Banks during hurricane season. Kitty Hawk resident Alyssa Hannon has experienced it all and says she doesn’t look far to place blame – climate change.

“I think a lot of these weather changes are the result of climate change, and I think the human population is part of the problem,” said Hannon, who runs a children’s museum.

Gary Lackmann, a professor at North Carolina State University in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Science, has written three papers on climate change and continues to study the subject.

WRAL chief meteorologist Greg Fishel visited him recently to get his opinion on whether climate change caused Hurricane Sandy.

“In a word, no,” Lackmann said, acknowledging that a single word cannot fully answer the question. “I won’t deny that climate change had some effect on Sandy. That remains to future research to sort that out, but so far, no one has done that research.”

Sandy's birth in the Caribbean is not unusual, but it found nurturing water – warmer than normal – in the Gulf Stream. Lackmann says some of that increase in temperature may be caused by man-made climate change.

“With more warming and more water vapor, it could have rained a little more heavily, but the track of the storm, the timing during the full moon at high tide, those are just bad luck,” Lackmann said. “But without question, there has been some rise in sea level; there has been some warming of the sea surface. Those things could exacerbate the situation

“In terms of the weather, there is a lot of research that indicates an increased frequency of extreme events, be it droughts, flood, heavy rain or Sandy,” Lackmann added.

As a hurricane, Sandy was a Category 1 when it brushed by North Carolina and technically wasn't a hurricane at landfall in New Jersey. Other weather factors played a part in the storm – an upper level low and an upper level high, which caught Sandy between them and hurled it at the coast like a softball in a pitching machine.

Lackmann says people are quick to look for a villain when a storm hits.

“We’ve seen this with a big El Niño event. You get a storm, you get flooding. People love to have an easy culprit, something they can point their finger at. It’s the evil El Niño or global warming, but it’s really a gross oversimplification to say this storm (happened) because of that. The atmosphere is much more complicated than that,” he said.

National Hurricane Center scientist Jack Beven delves into the high-tech science of how meteorologists predict and monitor potential hurricanes: