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Hurricane Sandy, climate change and the new normal

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 31 Oct 2012 16:32 GMT
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By Lisa Anderson

Staring out of my apartment window in Midtown Manhattan on Tuesday morning at an eerie green-tinged sky that buffeted my building with powerful wind gusts, unleashed barrages of driving rain and then suddenly glowed with a sickly sunshine, I saw and heard two things that put the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Sandy into a new, and potentially important, political perspective.

As the shocking images of a seemingly post-apocalyptic Lower Manhattan, half submerged in sea water, dark and silent, flashed across the TV screen, I heard New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and likely future presidential candidate, matter-of-factly cite the politically charged role of climate change in perhaps the most devastating storm in the city’s history.

“There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement… Anyone who says there’s not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think is denying reality,” he said calmly.

Earlier in the day, he had somewhat jokingly told President Barack Obama that it seemed like “we have a 100-year-flood every two years now”, he added.

As he spoke, I noticed that the wind-battered crab apple tree on the terrace outside my window had sprouted the pale pink blossoms of springtime - on the eve of Halloween. Weird. So too, the emerging tips of daffodils at the tree’s base.

“These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing,” Cuomo said. 

I knew he was right. A year ago, just around this time, we lost four mature trees at our Long Island weekend home to Hurricane-turned-Tropical-Storm Irene. We had also lost trees in the two prior years during significant, but far less serious, weather events. 

Last year, I finally signed a long-term contract with a tree service to remove fallen trees and identify and remove others at risk. I’ll be using them again this week to remove three more beautiful and mature trees, yanked up by the roots by Sandy.

Think about this: a year ago this week, New York City had a snowstorm that dropped 2.9 inches (7.4 cm) of snow, making it the snowiest October in the city since 1869 and providing the most substantial fall of snow for the warm winter that followed.


New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, also weighed in on the role of climate change on Tuesday - a subject considered so dangerous a third-rail topic in American politics that it is rarely mentioned by either current presidential candidate or any politician who wants to succeed. 

Discussing ways in which New York City must adapt its aging infrastructure to the new realities of weather patterns, especially as it is only a few feet above sea level, he said: “What is clear is that the storms we’ve experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before. Whether that’s global warming or what, I don’t know, but we’ll have to address those issues.” 

And address them we must, because in its 108-year history, the New York City subway system, the city’s most vital transport artery, has only been closed by weather-related events three times. They were all in the last three years: the blizzard of December 2010 when the trains became mired in the snow; Hurricane Irene in August 2011 when authorities mandated the first system-wide shutdown; and this week in preparation for Hurricane Sandy.

The subway system may not be back up and running normally for days, with tunnels and tracks flooded, crippling the flow of people to work and school. Such floods were never anticipated when the system was established. Now we know just how much things have changed and how vulnerable we are.

Something’s clearly changed. And we’re living it.

Even political analyst Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and former presidential candidate, took the party’s famous skepticism about global warming and climate change to task in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“So are we still going to go with climate change not being real fellow republicans (sic),” McCain wrote on Twitter.

In fact, a 2010 report, “New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force Report to the Legislature,” warned that the water in New York harbour has risen 15 inches (38.1 cm) in the past 150 years. “The likelihood that powerful storms will hit New York State’s coastline is very high as is the associated threat to human life and coastal infrastructure.  This vulnerability will increase in area and magnitude over time,” it predicted.

Klaus Jacob, a climate expert at NYC’s Columbia University, told the Huffington Post: “I think most people with common sense have understood it.  The only people yet who haven’t understood it are our politicians.”



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