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Hurricane Sandy approaching the Eastern seabord. Photo: NASA GOES Project
Hurricane Sandy approaching the Eastern seabord. Photo: NASA GOES Project

Extreme weather, with a new climate backdrop

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Sandy is no longer a hurricane, and many of our preparations here in the North Country are looking more like a massive fire drill at this point, but the remains of the storm were still expanding yesterday, promising to bring rain and wind along a route headed for the Great Lakes.

Martha Foley talked with climate scientist Dr. Curt Stager of Paul Smith's College about what this gigantic, complicated storm, just over a year since Tropical Storm Irene, says about regional weather patterns, and global climate.

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Martha Foley
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If you look at the last two years, we’ve had this amazing mix of extremes, from the big flooding, and then really dry and warm off and on this year, and now we’ve got this thing. The Sandy event was pretty rare, and an unusual combination of things where a sort of nor'easter ate a hurricane and took it into itself and made this very strange thing people are calling a "Frankenstorm". A lot of it is luck of the draw, but underneath is this longer-term pattern of climate change as well.

So it matches up with the predictions of more extremes?

A lot of it is luck of the draw, but underneath is this longer-term pattern of climate change as well.
Yeah, and there are a lot of mechanisms behind this, not all of which are totally known, and some of which are sort of sort of pinball machine things too. There were a few things involved in what’s going on here. One of them is a warmer ocean than normal, which puts more moisture in the atmosphere, and so it can feed bigger storms. There was warping of the jet stream, which has been behind a lot of the strange weather of the last two years.

When you say warping, where did it warp, is it further south?

So the jet stream is kind of between here and the polar regions, and it carries our weathers, most of our weather from west to east. And it's just like a river with storms on it basically once in a while. But sometimes it just kind of goes straight from west to east, and sometimes it meanders just like a river, and makes these big lazy loops.

It’s been more loopy in the last year or two and a few things happen when you do that. One of them is it also tends to slow down a bit, so when you get a dry spell or warm spell or a storm it tends to sit on you longer. So even if it’s not necessarily wetter, you’ll get more of an effect because it’s staying with you longer.

So there’s the jet stream distortions, the warmer ocean, the overall warmer atmosphere, and then it’s really hard to tell how predictable any of this is. Some people are tying it to the retreat of the arctic ice. And there’s not really a consensus yet among climate scientist about that. But some speculation about the loopiness of the jet stream is related to having less ice on the Arctic Ocean this time of year.

Well, is there anything in this weather that we could see or should see as predictor of what the winter will bring?

I am always skeptical of that with all these moving parts, and the limitations of the climate models. If you want to pin down an exact time frame like that, I’m always skeptical of that kind of thing. It’s more [that] you’re safer if you look over a spread of the coming years, where yes, you can pretty likely expect to see more of these kinds of things. But you might want to stick with looking at things like Wooly Bear Caterpillars to see how broad that band is in the middle of the caterpillar to tell you how intense the winter is going to be.

I’m all over the Wooly Bear thing. But looking further ahead to the scientists' predictions that sea levels will rise as climate changes. What we saw in Manhattan, on Monday night...does that show us anything about how that’s going to happen?

That sort of shows you the difference between the weather and the climate thing. The long term trend of climate is really undeniable now. And the sea level is absolutely going up, it’s gone up almost a foot in the last century. As the sea warms and as ice melts it is going to keep going up, and at least a couple of feet by the end of this century.

You’re sort of changing the background setting in which these variable weather patterns happen. So, next time you get a storm of this kind, the sea's level is going to be a little higher. And so the storm surge will be a little bit higher, then it would have been now. And of course, if this storm had happened a hundred years it would have had less impact, 'cause the sea level was a little lower at the time. So that’s really what climate change is doing, is just sort of changing the stage on which all of this natural stuff plays out.

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