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Hurricane Sandy’s Strength: Coincidence or Climate Change?

December 11, 2012

Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? Many in the scientific community agree that it played a significant role in the storm’s strength and destructiveness.

“Hurricanes and tropical storms would occur with or without global warming. But many climate models suggest that such storms will become more intense as the planet warms,” Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann told the Huffington Post.

One prevailing theory about why Sandy was so particularly destructive is that instead of turning out toward the ocean on its way north as hurricanes usually do, Sandy turned inland and battered the eastern seaboard.

Scientists are pointing to warmer-than-usual weather over Greenland, where record breaking glacier melt was observed this year. The warmer weather created an area of high-pressure which effectively ‘blocked’ the north Atlantic and forced Hurricane Sandy inland instead of out to sea.

Another theory from 1999 Goldman Prize recipient Michal Kravcik, blames the drought that has ravaged the central United States for the last several months. He believes that an area of high-pressure, due to rising heat and the drying water table, is preventing storm clouds and precipitation from moving inland- causing ‘intense precipitation events’ to take place on the coasts.

In a recent blog entryKravcik explains:

“In the drought-ridden regions of the American Plains, there is little water to evaporate and precipitation does not form easily. The heat from the dry-baking of the landscape results in a high-pressure system that prevents the entrance of moist low-pressure weather fronts from the Atlantic to gain access to the skies above the interior of the continent. This is one of the main reasons why the coastal zones of the United States receive the bulk of the precipitation while drought persists in the interior of the continent.”

Kravcik was awarded the Goldman Prize in 1999 for his work to stop a large dam on the Torysa River in Slovakia. The project would have destroyed hundreds of acres of countryside, including four 700-year old villages. In the early 1990’s, Kravcik founded the organization People and Water to raise awareness about the threats posed by the Torysa River dam and Slovakia’s outdated water management policies. The dam was successfully defeated in 1996, when the government canceled the project.

While debate continues over what turned Hurricane Sandy into a superstorm, it seems likely that climate change and shifting weather patterns were some of the key factors- an insight that underscores the importance of all Goldman Prize recipients’ work to restore and protect natural ecosystems, promote sustainability and reduce waste and pollution.

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