Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate Change and Hurricane Sandy

The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.
Genesis 7:19-20

Roger Boisjoly died suddenly last winter in his sleep. He had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks before that, but his death was unexpected. In 1986 he was an engineer working for Morton Thiokol, a major contractor for the Space Shuttle Challenger. He had argued vociferously against the launch in January of 1986 because his research showed that the seals at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets were subject to failure in cold temperatures. With launch temperatures predicted to be around thirty degrees Fahrenheit, Boisjoly believed it was not safe to launch. Tragically, he was right. Boisjoly spent the last decades of his life addressing engineering students on ethical decision-making.

Dan Miller, an engineer and climate change expert has compared climate change to the Challenger disaster. In their eagerness to keep the launch on schedule, NASA managers asked Boisjoly and a small number of other engineers at Thiokol to prove that the shuttle would blow up before they would be willing to cancel the launch. Miller points out that they were asking the wrong question. “They should have asked for assurance that the flight would be safe in order to launch.”

Similarly, the climate change skeptics argue that the vast body of data showing evidence of manmade climate change is not conclusive “proof.”

The computer models produced by climate change scientists have predicted an increase in extreme weather events as a result of global warming. The devastation of Hurricane Sandy is consistent with this pattern. That doesn’t “prove” that the largest storm in recorded history was caused by climate change, but it does make one wonder.

In an exchange with Andrew Revkin in the New York Times on line, Miller writes:

“Extremely Hot Summers (“3-sigma” events) have increased 50X (5000%) in the past 50 years. There is 4% more water vapor in the atmosphere than 50 years ago. Average ocean temperatures have increased (90% of global warming energy goes into the ocean). The Arctic sea ice just reached its lowest level in thousands of years and in a few years you will be able to sail a boat to the North Pole for the first time in human history.

“These documented impacts all affected the strength, scale, and direction of Hurricane Sandy. No one is saying that a Hurricane Sandy would not have happened if not for climate change. But I believe there is little doubt that the record-breaking scale and potential destructiveness of Sandy is due in large part to the amplifying effects of warmer ocean temperatures, higher atmospheric moisture content, and unusual Arctic weather patterns.

“Like the Space Shuttle Challenger’s NASA managers, waiting for scientific “proof” of disaster, rather than taking prudent (and economically beneficial) steps to avert disaster, only guarantees that our children will face catastrophic consequences.”

Climate change was one of many topics ignored in the presidential debates. But it is something we cannot ignore. One of the meteorologists predicting the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy reported on a conversation he had with a coastal resident as the storm was approaching. The man complained that the meteorologists were always hyping the next big storm and he saw no need to evacuate his home. The meteorologist said his response was approximately, “Do what the emergency management people are telling you to do, and if they are wrong you can call up and yell at me on Tuesday.”

We only have one planet. We don’t have a place to go if this one becomes uninhabitable. Maybe the 99% of scientists who believe that global warming is real are mistaken. Maybe the effects of global warming have been exaggerated. But their predictions have been accurate up to this point, and it is long past time for us to do something about it.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. We can not afford to ignore climate change. Even if the problem is not as severe as some claim, it still needs to be addressed.