Conflict & Justice

Was Sandy caused by this year's record Arctic ice melt?


The Seaside Heights roller coaster sits destroyed in the middle of the ocean after Superstorm Sandy rolled through New Jersey. Some climate specialists believe a series of events caused by a record Arctic ice melt contributed to the severity and direction of the storm.


Mark Wilson

While the East Coast and Caribbean dig themselves out from flood waters and downed trees, meteorologists and climate specialists are digging into the data to find out what made Hurricane Sandy so powerful. Was it a fluke, or are more storms like Sandy on their way to continue to wreak havoc on the coasts of the Atlantic? And, why is Sandy so noteworthy?

The easy answer, according to a number of experts, is that climate change is real and this year's record Arctic ice melt contributed to the conditions that created a storm like Sandy, which some dubbed "Frankenstorm" earlier in the week. 

"A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events," concluded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its most report on extreme weather, as Chris Field Director of the Department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science wrote in an article for CNN.

More from GlobalPost: Arctic melt opens door for big oil's next boom

GlobalPost has reported on this year's record low sea ice levels in the Arctic, and scientists are saying this week that the great melt has created warmer seas, which lead to more intense storms, as well as sea level rise, and a phenomenon known as "blocking," all contributing to Sandy's destructive nature. 

Blocking has been occurring more frequently in recent years, says ClimateCentral, and it is a symptom of global warming. Basically, when there is more warm water in the ocean (because of the ice melt), more solar energy is absorbed by the water, which contributes to a warmer atmosphere. This atmospheric temperature shift causes unpredictable weather patterns, sometimes working against each other. 

In this case, high pressure air from Greenland and a storm over the Central Atlantic collided with the hurricane as it moved north, blocking its path and careening it straight into New Jersey. 

"The loss of sea ice opens large expanses of open water, which then absorbs more of the incoming solar energy and adds heat and moisture to the atmosphere, thereby helping to alter weather patterns," wrote ClimateCentral's Andrew Freedman

Freedman says that "some, though not all" scientists believe blocking to be a direct result of the loss of sea ice. 

Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, isn't convinced of the connection to blocking. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that Sandy was perhaps a "random" incident. 

More from GlobalPost: The Arctic is melting, and we're going to cover it

“It looks like it could be a really nasty storm, but a lot of this is simply a crapshoot,” Trenberth said. According to the Herald-Tribune, "other elements of climate change, such a warmer than normal seas, are likely playing a larger role in Hurricane Sandy's strength and ability to generate intense rainfall."

The fact is, however, that climate change is happening, and whether Sandy was caused by blocking, or ice melt, or a generally warmer atmosphere, warmer oceans will result in continued extreme weather. 

In a post earlier this week, science reporter Christopher Mims wrote that no matter the reason for Sandy, these destructive storms will continue to form as the climate shifts, all over the globe. 

"Whatever Sandy is, expect more devastation from climate change and extreme weather. Will climate change lead to more frequent extreme weather events everywhere, including rare occurrences such as Sandy? And the answer to that one is a resounding yes."

This week's cover of Bloomberg Businessweek puts it even more bluntly. What's the reason for Sandy and other extreme weather? "It's global warming, stupid." 

For more of GlobalPost's reporting on the Arctic, check out our Special Report "The Arctic Melt: Oil Rush at the Top of the World."