The New Normal of Extreme Weather

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We're fully aware of the destruction and damage that storms like Sandy may cause. But we just can't just throw around "storm of the century" when scientists say that these storms will start appearing more and more. 

Irene last year was called the "storm of the century." And obviously, a century hasn't passed since that destructive storm hit (some called her impact on New York City lackluster even though she wrecked Vermont), and yet again the United States's East Coast is bracing for another "storm of the century" which is, according to CNN's early estimates, supposed to cost in the $15 billion range. So yeah, we risk getting redundant especially when there's 87 years or so left in this century. 

But the scary thing out there isn't annoying journalists hyping every hurricane like mad, but rather that storms like Sandy will be more commonplace. And instead of being a "storm of a century" Sandy and "storms of the century" like it, could be storms we could start seeing more and more of. Though scientists don't really want to go out on a limb linking extreme weather to climate change—NPRs' Adam Frank goes into this brilliantly—they are pretty clear on one thing: 

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Oceans Are Getting Warmer. That means hurricane season is getting longer: "When you heat the oceans more, you extend the length of hurricane season," Weather Underground's Dr. Jeff Masters (seriously, go read his stuff) told Democracy Now. "There’s been ample evidence over the last decade or so that hurricane season is getting longer—it starts earlier, ends later. You’re more likely to get these sort of late October storms now," he adds.  As NPR's Frank explains, a warmer ocean means more evaporation, and evaporation means more storms. According to an MIT study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, scientists found a connection between warmer years and strong hurricanes. In that same vein, warmer oceans give storms like Sandy more energy to sustain themselves. And it just so happens that in the first six months of 2012, sea surface temperatures on the Northeast Continental Shelf experienced record highs.  

The increase of the number of hurricanes increases the chance of one of them lurching toward the Northeast, and that's one reason why we can't just throw around the term "storm of the century" whenever we feel like it (otherwise, we'd be the journalists who cried "storm of the..."). 

The other part of "storm of the century" equation, aside from more hurricanes is, of course, the actual number of hurricanes which make landfall in the Northeast. If all these hurricanes produced by warmer waters just drifted out to sea, storms like Sandy would remain unusual. But Science 2.0's Robert Cooper alerted us to a phenomenon called a "Blocking Pattern" which would affect the frequency of hurricanes coming up the coast.  He writes: 

A blocking pattern is essentially when the jet stream gets kinked. The current kink is pushing Sandy back on shore where most hurricanes would keep veering out to sea. A recent analysis showed that blocking patterns like this are more likely thanks to a warming Arctic. As Arctic sea ice keeps melting to new record lows, the darker water absorbs more heat, which it later releases to the atmosphere. The effect of all this is a weaker jet stream more prone to kinking.

As Cooper notes, climate change isn't going to cause an event on its own just like doping on its own doesn't guarantee wins at the Tour de France. But for a minute think how integral doping was to Lance Armstrong's wins (and the second place finisher too), and oh yeah, that paper we mentioned about the correlation between warmer years and hurricanes. "Climate change is happening, this is why we care."states Cooper. We're inclined to agree. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.