Climate Experts: East Coast Not Ready for Hurricane Sandy Follow Up

Hurricanes are expected to get more serious and frequent over the next 100 years.

A tree leans against a house Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, while another tree lies on a taxi with a shattered rear window in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

A tree leans against a house Tuesday in the Bay Ridge neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, while another tree lies on a taxi with a shattered rear window in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.

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As the Northeast begins a long recovery process from the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, many people are just hoping to get their lives back to normal.

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But several climate scientists say people should already be planning for a repeat sometime in the future.

Scientists had long warned about the possibility of a major hurricane flooding wide swaths of New York City and the Jersey Shore—in fact, in February, a Princeton scientist suggested that climate change could cause "a storm the likes of which have not been seen." Sandy was that, becoming one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. If current trends continue, it won't be the last time New York City sees a devastating weather event.

"This storm is certainly a preview of the future," Michael Oppenheimer, the Princeton scientist behind the February study wrote in an E-mail. Oppenheimer said he lost power at his New York City home during the storm. "The surge at the Battery was about 12 feet as I understand it. Toward the end of this century, adding in sea level rise and stronger storms, it would be 17 feet according to a projection we made and published earlier this year."

Recent research has correlated higher sea temperatures with more severe and frequent hurricanes. While climate change cannot be specifically blamed for any given hurricane, the Atlantic is likely to see an uptick in catastrophic weather events as sea surface temperatures rise, says Aslack Grinsted, who earlier this month published a study that suggested hurricanes are worse in "warm" years.

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"This is quite a special situation, but [Sandy] is clearly consistent with what I've observed. You would expect more and stronger events in our present climate compared to the past," he says. "Things are only moving more towards the Northern Atlantic, and there needs to be some adaptation happening. There are lots of scientists who have been saying that for a decade or more, but I think this highlights it."

In August 2011, Hurricane Irene became the most costly and one of the strongest storms to hit New York City, leading experts to call it a "once-in-50-year" hurricane. Barely a year later, the sea level rise associated with Sandy was higher than Irene before the storm even made landfall.

In March, a study by Ben Strauss, director of the Program on Sea Level Rise at Climate Central, found that sea level rise could put the homes of almost 4 million Americans in danger over the next 100 years, mostly in New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, and Louisiana. During Sandy and its aftermath, hundreds of homes have been destroyed.

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"Some places have no choice but to build walls, like Manhattan," he said in March. "We settled the coast assuming it was a fixed boundary, and it's not anymore ... these are high-density places where there's nowhere to retreat."

With global temperatures expected to rise over the next 100 years, Oppenheimer isn't optimistic about New York being able to handle a more powerful storm.

"The current situation is a total mess," he says. "We need to be better prepared for this prospect, but we also need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, or that future will become inevitable."

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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.