Sandy – a freak of nature or a sign of more to come?

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Superstorm Sandy

Superstorm Sandy bears down on the US east coast. Photo: NASA

Ocean City, Maryland.   The following article was published on 13 November 2012 in DelmarvaNow.com – the online version of The Daily Times – a newspaper of  Salisbury, Maryland.

“Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality”. These were the bold and perhaps somewhat controversial words of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in response to the devastation that Superstorm Sandy brought upon his state.  Shortly afterwards, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg followed suit with the statement, “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of [climate change], the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

These are strong statements coming from globally recognized US leaders.  But do they bear any spark of truth as supported by scientific fact, or are they simply the reflections of an over-reacting public to a terrible, yet one-of-a-kind tragedy?  And what does this all mean for Maryland’s Eastern Shore?

The short answer is that science overwhelmingly supports the statements of these New Yorkers. Scientists have been warning New York City officials for over a decade of pending danger from events exactly as they played out in Sandy.  They warned that a rise in sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns were putting the city’s antiquated infrastructure at risk.  And this risk extends to much of the low-lying eastern seaboard, including Delmarva.

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking there have always been hurricanes.  What makes this one different and why should I believe it has anything to do with climate change?  Take into account that 3 of the top 10 highest floods at Battery Park since 1900 happened in the last 2½ years, and that Sandy’s floodwaters were 2 feet higher than anything previously experienced in the history of New York.  Add to this a string of devastating “derecho” storms that pummeled parts of Maryland earlier this year, the drought impacting much of the US agricultural sector, along with the hottest July on record, and we are left to wonder – what’s going on?  Well, no one can or is saying with 100% certainty that any individual hurricane or extreme weather event, including Sandy, is caused directly by climate change.  But what scientists are revealing with increasing clarity is that climate change is making these events worse.  Essentially, the effects of climate change took Sandy and super-charged it.

Hammerheads, a restaurant on the Ocean City Boardwalk, was pummeled by Superstorm Sandy. Photo: Arlo

Here’s how this happened. First, we have rising sea levels (up 7in in the last 100 years).  This equates to flooding and storm surge being worse along the coast.  And the rate of sea rise is now accelerating.   Next, we know that warm ocean water gives energy to hurricanes.  Sandy swung slowly up the coastal waters of the eastern US, where water temperatures are now a full 2 degrees warmer than they were 100 years ago.  This contributed to Sandy’s massive size.  Finally, this has been a record year for melting Arctic sea ice.   It is suspected that a warmer than normal Arctic may have allowed a “blocking high” pressure system, usually present in the North Atlantic, to slip further south, bouncing Sandy back into the US rather than allowing it to move safely off to sea.

Maryland made out well compared to the tragedy unfolding in New Jersey and New York.  We were very lucky. However, more extreme weather events are certainly on their way and we need to be prepared for the one that will not be as favorable on us.   While scientists and world leaders go on with the business of figuring out what (if anything) can be done at a global scale, the best path forward for Delmarva is to focus on adaptation.  Simply put, this means recognizing that a new reality is upon us, understanding what the probable impacts are, and adequately preparing for them.

Residents of Ocean City, Maryland look out on flooded streets following Superstorm Sandy

In real world terms, this entails reducing development on flood prone areas and perhaps relocating some of the development that is already there.  It means developing efficient strategies for reducing flood damage and for getting our citizens out of harms way when disaster strikes.  It means adjusting our wildlife and fisheries management plans, as changing conditions will alter species ranges and migration timetables. If it is to be warmer, along with either wetter or drier, adaptation means choosing crops and crop strains best suited for the emerging conditions. And it also means restoring coastal habitat.  Coastal features such as dunes, oyster beds, bay islands, marshes, and forests are our best defense against the ravages of extreme weather.  These features function as barriers, taking the brunt of winds and surge that would otherwise hit our communities and farms.  They also stabilize coastlines, buffer water flow (providing some relief to floods as well as droughts), and provide habitat to economically important species – aiding in the recovery of our livelihoods following a disaster.

Maryland Coastal Bays Program is dedicated to supporting Delmarva in this effort.  A Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP), created in 1999 with the input and support of citizens, calls for the restoration of 10,000 acres of coastal marsh. Likewise, working with local landowners and municipalities, the Program is reforesting coastal lands, restoring streams, and protecting existing habitat along the Bays.  The Program is now in the process of updating the CCMP, and Sandy serves as a sharp reminder to keep an active eye on climate change adaptation.   Thoughts and ideas are welcome on how this might be best done and how we might work together on adaptation as a community.  Feel free to review the existing CCMP online and offer any input to: technical@mdcoastalbays.org .

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