It was the day the ocean came ashore. We watched in horror as Hurricane Sandy lurched into the East Coast last October. Floodwaters surged into Manhattan and inundated more than 70 percent of Atlantic City. Months later, people in New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast are still trying to pick up the pieces.
That Frankenstorm gave us a hair-raising look at the power of nature and the heartbreaking damage it can inflict. But it's critical to understand that such disasters are becoming more unnatural because of manmade climate change. Some types of extreme weather have already increased in power and frequency as our planet warms, as confirmed by the draft National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive scientific report authored by more than 240 experts, released last month.
The terrifying truth is that we face a future full of Frankenstorms. And that future will only worsen the longer we delay in making deep cuts in our carbon pollution. As a scientist and a mother, I urge President Obama to keep that critical fact firmly in mind as he ponders the future of Keystone XL.
This climate-killing project would transport up to 35 million gallons of oil a day from Canada's tar sands — one of the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive energy sources in the world — to the Gulf Coast. Green-lighting Keystone would require ignoring everything scientists are learning about the links between climate change and the rising risk of extreme weather.
Powerful scientific evidence shows that global warming is cranking up three key factors that increase America's risk of superstorms and the damage they cause.
First, global warming loads storms with more energy and more rainfall. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Katrina-magnitude Atlantic hurricanes have been twice as likely in warm years compared with cold years.
That's because hotter ocean temperatures add energy to storms and warmer air holds more moisture, causing storms to dump more rainfall. Last September, global ocean temperatures hit their second-highest level on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, adding power to Hurricane Sandy.
Second, melting sea ice and accelerating Arctic warming are causing changes in the jet stream that have been connected to more extreme weather in the United States.
Essentially, climate change in the Arctic is slowing and buckling the jet stream, causing bursts of colder air to drop down farther into the United States. In Sandy's case, a collision with a cold front acted to turn the hurricane into a superstorm.
Third, storm surges are rising on top of higher sea levels, so more coastline floods during storms. That's critical because storm surge is often far more damaging than high winds – and because more than half of all Americans live within 50 miles of the coast.
Why are seas rising? Climate change is the driving force. In the northeastern United States, sea levels are rising three to four times faster than the global average, putting major U.S. cities at increased risk of flooding, according to a recent study in Nature Climate Change. The West Coast is also at risk: Most of California could experience three or more feet of sea-level rise this century.
Climate change will also deliver other types of extreme weather, including more scorching heat waves and destructive droughts that will contribute to a rising risk of food scarcity, according to the scientists who authored the National Climate Assessment. The United States could see temperatures rise by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 unless we make deep cuts in carbon pollution.
That’s not the world I want to leave to my daughter.
Sometimes it seems that President Obama gets it. As a parent, I appreciated his election-night acceptance speech when he powerfully pointed out that we all want our children to live in an America that isn’t threatened “by the destructive power of a warming planet.” And when he recently reminded us that our first task as a society is keeping our children safe, I couldn’t agree more.
Now the president must back his words with action. To avert climate chaos, we must leave the dirtiest fossil fuels – like the tar sands – in the ground. For the sake of our country’s future and our children’s well-being, the president must show true leadership on climate change and stop Keystone XL in its tracks.
Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., is climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity (www.biologicaldiversity.org).