A Dope Slap Moment

Hurricane Sandy may serve as the climate change wake up call many have feared and that many have predicted.

Several years ago, I taught a geology course at Tufts University. I was discussing the issue of climate change with one of the students and she asked me when we would get serious about addressing it.

I told her that the powers-that-be would not take the problem seriously until society collectively got dope slapped up the side of the head by some catastrophe which could not be ignored.

We may have had such a moment on Monday, October 26th, 2012, when a major storm made its way up the east coast and turned west directly into one of the largest metropolitan areas in the Western World. The impacts of such a storm were long predicted – including a storm surge high enough to flood lower Manhattan and submerge the subway and highway tunnel systems.

Before I go further, I want to step back a bit and discuss how science works.  Scientists make observations, and then come up with an idea, also known as a hypothesis or model to explain the observations. This hypothesis will also predict the probability that future observations or experiments will confirm the hypothesis.   This hypothesis can then be modified or thrown out as new observations come along.  If the hypothesis continues to be confirmed, then it will rise to the level of scientific theory.

Far from being some hazy notion – a scientific theory is an idea, supported by a wealth of facts, which describes and predicts conditions in nature. The acid test of a scientific theory is its ability to make accurate predictions.

So why were oceanographers and climatologists able to predict what would happen to New York last week?  Well, global average temperatures have been increasing substantially since the middle of the 20th century.  Predictably, sea level has started to rise as continental glaciers melt and the ocean warms as well.  Warm water expands so the volume of the oceans increases as well.  The sea level is up at least a foot and the rate of increase shows no sign of slowing down.

Combine higher sea levels with a storm surge pushed ahead of hurricane, and the storm surge will predictably be higher.

Now, was Hurricane Sandy caused by climate change?  The evidence is at best equivocal on that score because climatologists cannot predict specific weather events. 

What they can predict are trends.  Predicted trends include:

  • An increase in sea level; 
  • an increase in ocean acidity (as the oceans absorb increased CO2 in the atmosphere);
  • A substantial temperature increases, starting in the Arctic; 
  • A decrease in Arctic ice extent and volume; 
  • Changes in the character of the jet stream which can cause stagnant persistent weather patterns, such as the high pressure system over the North Atlantic which served to steer Sandy away from New England and right into the northern Mid-Atlantic states;
  • An increase in severe regional weather events such as storms and droughts.

Does any of this sound familiar?  It should because all these things are occuring.

Could an event like Sandy happen again? Yes and actually, it could have happened last year if Hurricane Irene had been a tad bit stronger and taken a slightly different course. As it was, damage from that storm was nothing to sneeze at, topping out at $20 Billion whereas Sandy is going to exceed $50 Billion. From what I read, many climatologists think such storms will start coming not once a century, but once per decade.

So, here we are.  The predictions match the trends. It’s tempting for the scientists who have been warning about where we were headed to engage in a bit of Schadenfreude (a fancy German word for “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others”) and shout from the roof tops “WE TOLD YOU SO!” but I doubt most of them feel this way.  Instead, I'd bet they feel like Cassandra of Greek myth, gifted with the ability to see the future but cursed so that none would believe her.

I have written before about the reality of climate change and my own frustration at the collective shortsightedness of our political leaders to address it. Given that we have already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere in less than 200 years to equal the amount of CO2 increase since the depths of the last ice age – we will not turn around a substantial amount of the projected “baked-in” temperature increase, with its consequent impacts on climate, even if we could switch away from fossil fuels tomorrow.

We are left now with only one path to take and that is to prepare for what is coming and plan accordingly. Suddenly, no one is laughing at the idea of storm surge barriers around New York City. The $5 to $10 Billion cost is a bargain compared to the physical and economic damage to the city from just one storm.  Such systems already exist in London and Rotterdam.

So where will the money come from?  It’s going to have to come from us, or more specifically, the municipalities in these areas and if there is no political will to spend that kind of money then the impetus will come from the insurance industry – yes, the insurance industry.

Most insurance companies already will not insure properties in coastal areas or flood zones, leaving the Federal Flood Insurance program as the insurer of last resort (and guess who pays for that). When, not if, but when large insurance companies step in and raise insurance premiums so high for businesses and residents in major coastal cities, or just flat out not write policies at all, then governments will have to act, because businesses will say, “Either you do something about it or we are leaving for higher ground and taking your tax revenues with us.”

We also have to face the fact that we cannot turn back the tide everywhere. People are going to have to move to higher ground and some coastal areas, as well as low lying areas in river floodplains will simply have to be abandoned to the waters.  The federal flood insurance program will have to be changed to pay out for losses only under the condition that the owners leave the property and not rebuild.

Welcome to the future.  Consider yourself dope slapped.


Postscript – Here in our tiny little cocoon of Westborough, we are not immune to extreme weather events. However, our town does something unprecedented in the rest of Massachusetts: inspecting and requiring the maintenance of all its private and public stormwater management systems (catch basins, storm sewers and detention basins).  Many of the inspected systems had not been cleaned in decades and thus Westborough is now better prepared for large rain events than surrounding towns because working stormwater management systems reduce or eliminate local flooding in many cases (100-year events not withstanding and we have had more than one of those in the last decade).

In addition, through a cooperative relationship with CSX, antiquated and blocked drainage systems under the main rail right-of-way bisecting the town have been repaired and improved, which is now preventing backups of stormwater that formerly could not drain south into Cedar Swamp.  A prime example is the rebuilt Transflow rail yard at the end of Walkup Drive. Two crumbling 40-inch metal drain pipes running north-south under the site were replaced with 48-inch diameter concrete pipes and the water level in the swamp between the rail yard and Flanders Road dropped several feet, back to the level it was in 1970.

Credit for this program goes strictly to Derek Saari, the Assistant Town Planner and Conservation Officer, who saw the need for this program and took ownership of it.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Townie November 04, 2012 at 03:52 PM
There is so much wrong with this article that it is actually hilarious.
Andy Koenigsberg November 04, 2012 at 04:50 PM
Well, if you find my commentary so funny, please detail what you find so amusing (and wrong) and I will be happy to discuss it. By the way, if you don't want to deal with the relevant technical issues - I won't waste my time because I have no patience for people who don't want to have rational discourse.
Townie November 04, 2012 at 05:17 PM
Lets not waste my or your time. Its been gone over and over and over and types like you just refuse to believe. the FACTS.
Andy Koenigsberg November 04, 2012 at 05:25 PM
I do not believe in Climate Change - I accept it as the best explanation for the facts as we know them today. I have no idea what your "FACTS" are but please, present them here and cite the relevant technical references. And don't just site blog posts or newspaper articles, but refereed technical journals such as Science, Nature, or PNAS.
Townie November 05, 2012 at 12:39 PM
The fact is there is no proof that global warming exist and if in fact it does no proof that it is caused by humans.
Gary Kelley November 05, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Glaciers melting....New York harbor rising 1 inch per year.....SOMETHING seems to be going on. While I have a hard time believing it is the result of hairspray (and the like), I also don't want to be like the frog not noticing the water is coming to a boil. Andy's post is thought provoking, and for that I appreciate it.
Ron Goodenow November 05, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Andy, when you have the birther/anonymous crowd after you something must be going right. Of course, I suspect what's really going on here is that the anti-science guys are utterly confused now that the god of Pat Robertson and Tony Perkins has dumped the storm on the East Coast before and not after the bad guy from Kenya is re-elected. I do wish the Patch editors would just step in and ask for clowns like this to document their arguments or stay out of good civic space. I recently spent a couple of hours with one of the world's leading climate/sustainable development experts (several books, a recent feature of a (gasp) public television special, who told me that things are going to be getting much worse and given the deafness of our politicians ordinary citizens, with efforts like yours, are the real key to success. I hope what you are reporting about Westborough is being done here in Nboro, where I live. Will check that out.
Andy Koenigsberg November 05, 2012 at 02:40 PM
Townie - What you are saying is opinion and not fact. You are certainly entitled to your opinions, but the body of evidence that humans are changing the climate due to greenhouse gas emissions is unequivocal. The entire global temperature data set compiled by NASA, NOAA and the British Hadley center used to map global temperature increase was thoroughly and independently reviewed by a very well known and vocal climate skeptic last year (in a study funded by the Koch brothers who are well known climate change deniers) and found to be sound. Not only that but it was enough to convince him to no longer be a skeptic. It was established more than a century ago that CO2 absorbs infrared radiation, increasing the temperature of the atmosphere and that the source of the increased CO2 in the atmosphere (over 100 ppm since the beginning of the industrial revolution and climbing) comes almost entirely from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas and to a lesser extent, agricultural activities. I can provide extensive references to both academic and government research (the latter of which is not subject to outside funding sources) to support what I am saying and would be happy to provide it. No offense, but you have to back up your opinions regarding what you think are the flaws in the basic science here, otherwise your comments here carry as much weight as the opinion that the sun orbits the earth or the world is flat.
Townie November 06, 2012 at 09:29 PM
Myths vs. Facts: Global Warming — OSS Foundation ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths Facts in Global Warming: This news and analysis section addresses substance of arguments such as "global warming is a hoax", "global warming is a fiction", ... Global Warming Hoax: News www.globalwarminghoax.com/ Global Warming Hoax - News and Information Source regarding the myth of Global Warming. ... Fact Checking the Fact-Challenged Obama Auto Bailout Czar ...
Andy Koenigsberg November 06, 2012 at 10:16 PM
Did you even read the OSS foundation web page? Right at the top, it says: "Global warming is happening and it is human caused. There is no valid evidence that can prove otherwise." GlobalWarmingHoax.com is run by John and Joseph Herron. Just a couple of folks with a web site. They are not peer reviewed, data driven researchers. Anyone can put up a web site that says whatever they want, like the sun orbits the earth, but so what? All you need is $35 to get a domain name, and spare time to write some trash. As I said before - don't post garbage from web sites or blogs - let's see references from scientific journals.
Townie November 06, 2012 at 11:02 PM
You are going to continue drinking the kool aide regardless. Lets just agree to disagree and in a million years we will see who was right and who was wrong..
Andy Koenigsberg November 07, 2012 at 12:37 AM
As I said in a blog post a couple of months back: “Consider for a moment what it would take for Climate Change to be a hoax. Not only would the temperature data for the last 120 years from all over the planet need to be faked, but so would ice core data, ocean sediment core data and studies across a whole range of disciplines, from climatology, geology, geophysics, meteorology, and oceanography, among others. NOAA, NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and a slew of public and private academic institutions in this country alone would also have to be in on it. I would sooner believe that the U.S. Government was capable of covering up the existence of the 1947 Roswell UFO at Area 51.” The Dept. of Defense, in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, said that “. . . climate-related changes are already being observed in every region of the world, including the United States and its coastal waters.” What do you know that the Dept. of Defense doesn’t? I am very confident that what I wrote in that post and in this one are accurate summations of what is going on. If what has happened to date is not enough, we won’t have to wait a million years to make the effects of climate change obvious even to you; a couple of decades should suffice.
Townie November 07, 2012 at 12:45 AM
Climate change is a natural occurrence and I for one am not willing to alter my life because it MAY be bad . A warming climate may actually be good. Do you drive a car? Do you heat your house? If so you are a hypocrite. Lets go back to the day of the horse and buggy.
Andy Koenigsberg November 07, 2012 at 01:52 AM
Please go up to a person on Staten Island or the Mayor of NYC or the Governor of NY and say the same thing to their face. See how far that get's you. Also, I had the first photovoltaic system in this town, so spare me your sanctimonious condescension about hypocracy. Far better investment than a BMW, let me tell you. Oh, and my electric bill averages about $20 or so per month most of the year. I have a pretty good handle on how climate as changed throughout geologic history. There is also plenty of data in the geologic record to show what happens when greenhouse gases increase at rates far beyond background levels in a geologically short period of time. Climate changes at a very rapid rate and really bad things start to happen to life that cannot adapt rapidly enough. We are adding CO2 to the atmosphere at rates at least 100 times faster than the last time a CO2 spike occured about 56 million years ago. You just cannot get it through your head that I am looking at the data here, instead of swallowing the "kool aide" put out by right wing talking heads who have not seen the inside of a science text book since 2nd grade. I write these postings because I want to give a scientific perspective on issues like these. I know I am not going to convince you of anything, but I could not care less about that. Bottom line here is that the facts are not on your side, whether you accept them or not.
Ron Goodenow November 07, 2012 at 07:45 PM
We've just seen the GOP blow an election because, in part, of the rise to the bait of 'faith-based' assurances on climate, Obama's origins, the ruination of the Nation (as the local GOP chair put it), the evilness of Elizabeth Warren, socialist healthcare, the right of corporations to deny women health choices, rape as an act of God, and many other things which were not backed by facts but a lot of preaching and puffed up morality -- mainly by puffed up white guys. So, hey Townie, keep it up. It not only provides a level of entertainment, but an opportunity for Andy to lay out the results of scientific thinking -- oh, and some empirical evidence one would be blind to not see, as Gary reminds us. Recently, I heard a talk by the head of the US Navy's office which deals with environmental issues and he would blow a lot of Townie nonsense right out of the water. And no commie he. Just look at what our military is doing to anticipate climate change and associated issues of energy..
Townie November 07, 2012 at 07:59 PM
Glad to be able to entertain you Ron and Andy. Sorry but i have to go Its almost tea time or should I say kool Aide time. There is just as much ammunition countering what you believe as there is agreeing with what you believe. I guess we chose to believe what we want.
Ron Goodenow November 07, 2012 at 09:21 PM
Mr. Townie, you have a perfect right to believe anything you want. Why anyone should believe you is another matter. Qualification to comment? Where is the "as much ammunition"? Hells bells a near majority of Republicans think Obama is a Muslim, and I met some folks in New Mexico who swear he was born in a Russian camp on the dark side of the moon and came here in a space ship. Or as a lot of tea party folks think, was brainwashed as a five year old. And so on. for years GOPers didn't believe that air pollution or water pollution were dangerous to health, and today there are millions who would deny healthcare to the 75% of our people who are mooches (and believe that number). This is all a matter of 'belief', which is true. But it is also BS.
Andy Koenigsberg November 07, 2012 at 11:24 PM
Accepting the reality of climate change has nothing to do with belief. Belief is for the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. Science is about data and observation and that forms the basis for the consensus of this issue by most of the scientists and engineers on this planet. If you had any ammunition that was worth a damn, you would have been able to cite it or point to it, but instead you provide a link to a web site that concludes climate change is not a hoax, which doesn't say a whole lot about your reading comprehension. Go ahead and believe what you want - the rest of society is going to go ahead and deal with the issue.
Townie November 07, 2012 at 11:35 PM
Two more enviro whacko's
Andy Koenigsberg November 08, 2012 at 12:50 AM
So the best you can do is resort to calling me names? Oh horrors! If I am an enviro wacko, then so is the Department of Defense which puts me in good company.
Ron Goodenow November 08, 2012 at 05:44 AM
All the more reason why Patch should require real names and not counter national trends. And if Patch cannot do that simply edit out truly nutty comments like Townie's when they make claims like this.
Townie November 08, 2012 at 01:51 PM
Oh My !!! We had a nor'easter in early November i am sure its because of climate change. And i can't put my real name up here because I am a business owner and you, Andy and many other rabid libs may stop doing business with me. I can't afford that at this time as I'm not in line for a gubmint green job. Sorry fellas.
Andy Koenigsberg November 08, 2012 at 02:56 PM
It's been obvious to everyone reading this thread that you are impervious to facts and reason, but i will continue to make the scientific case. I am sure that the Patch would be happy to have you create your own blog post to make your case that what I wrote is nonsense. I also find it interesting that no one is coming to your defense here and that you have not been able to cite even one peer-reviewed journal article to support your opinion. Instead, you have resorted to calling me names - which is usually the last refuge of someone who has lost an argument. Climatologists have predicted that wetter climates are going to get wetter and more unstable. New England's rainfall has increased at least 10% over the last century. The data to support that can be downloaded from NOAA, put into Excel and graphed up easily. Also predicted is that increased precipitation will come more often in storm events. As I have already said - it is the trends in weather that matter, not specific events. Some years will be drier, some will be wetter, some will be more or less stormy but the overall trend will increase. One of the photos I uploaded shows the number of major floods in New England over the last century using data from the USGS. We've had 5 major floods in the last decade whereas in most of the previous decades, floods were limited to one or two per decade.This is what I have been talking about - trends. Make of it what you will.
Ron Goodenow November 08, 2012 at 03:19 PM
Andy, folks like Mr. Townie sure don't live in the 'home of the brave', let alone 'home of the truth'. And we 'whacko rabid libs' aren't stupid enough to stay away from a GOOD business because its owner may disagree with us on something. Hells bells, I frequent a nearby pub that has been bedecked in Brown signs for months, and my barber gives away tea party fliers. My experience has been that people who just want to rant and rave, not protect their businesses, are the ones who normally use an alias. I can assure you that if Mr. Townie uses his real name I will go into his shop or whatever he owns and if he has something I can use will buy it.
Townie November 08, 2012 at 05:34 PM
"I also find it interesting that no one is coming to your defense here and that you have not been able to cite even one peer-reviewed journal article to support your opinion." Andy ,Just google "The climate change hoax" I really don't have the time or energy. And whether its drought ,to wet,unusually hot or cold its always blamed on man made climate change by you enviro whacko's. I call it "normal weather cycles" And Ron I am sure you FREQUENT the nearby pub VERY often. I just hope you are walking and not driving a gas combustion vehicle. Okay guys you two keep having at it, this topic has run its coarse with me. Tell me though is man made climate change creating warmer weather or colder weather ? It seems the whacko's want to have it both ways. Is it global warming or cooling or should I look at the thermometer for the answer on any given day ?
Andy Koenigsberg November 08, 2012 at 06:33 PM
If I am an enviro wacko, so is the Department of Defense and every major scientific organization on the planet. I am in good company. I am glad you are done with this. I can defend my point of view all day long because the facts are on my side, not yours. Web sites like globalwarminghoax.com are not peer reviewed scientific articles They are meaningless political propaganda.


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