Thursday, November 8th 2012, 11:56 AM EST
Hurricane Sandy was not due to global warming, and the Climate Commission is wrong to claim otherwise.
BY CIRCULATING commentary that suggests hurricane Sandy was exacerbated by human-caused global warming, the Climate Commission is wilfully misleading the public. Let us be clear, Sandy was barely a category 1 hurricane as it crossed the densely populated north-east United States.
The enormous damage resulted not from wind, but from flooding and inundation over low-lying areas where housing and commercial development was not designed to cope with such an extreme event. Compounding the issue, vital infrastructure such as levees, public transport systems and power stations were not adequately hardened.
The flooding resulted from heavy rain and a large coastal storm surge at a time of spring tides, all eventualities that could have been predicted.
Many scientists, and now the Climate Commission, have suggested that in a warmer world tropical storms will be more frequent or more dangerous than those previously experienced. This assertion is contentious, and evidence for it is lacking.
As has already been stressed by senior scientist Martin Hoerling from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many other scientists, no evidence exists for any influence of global warming, let alone human-caused warming, on the intensity of hurricane Sandy.
Sandy was a decaying hurricane whose wind intensity was decreasing as it moved north across subtropical waters. Importantly, the presence of a second large weather system in the north-east Atlantic Ocean and Canada blocked the passage of the hurricane and caused its impact and storm surge to be focused in the New Jersey-New York area.
The coincident alignment of a hurricane and a large extra-tropical storm is what gave Sandy its extra intensity.
In a broader context, the lack of recent global warming is also an impediment to those who argue that Sandy was influenced by industrial carbon dioxide. There has been no significant atmospheric warming since 1996 and no ocean warming since the Argo buoy network was deployed in 2003. In consequence, global atmospheric and oceanic temperatures are now close to their average over the past 30 years.
Suggestions that higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide have somehow influenced the formation and development of Sandy are therefore simply untrue.
The Climate Commission appears to consider it opportune to use the harrowing Sandy event, with its loss of lives and immense destruction, to push its political agenda. But in favouring action to try to "prevent" global warming, the commission is propagating a wrong and costly message.
For most parts of the world, there exist 200-year documented records of severe weather events and their impacts. Nowhere should we be taken by surprise by a severe storm and its attendant impacts. Our understanding allows accurate estimates to be made of the frequency with which particular weather-climate hazards will recur.
Regrettably, over the past 50 years such knowledge has often been ignored as development has encroached onto flood plains and low-lying coastal margins. There are exceptions, such as the long-established levees that protect many inland river cities. Counter to that, building is now often approved within sand barrier dune systems that, before modification, protected coastal communities from flooding.
It is both costly and futile to try to minimise climate hazard through global engineering. In particular, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide does not reduce climate risk. Instead, the cost-effective approach to dealing with all climate hazard, both natural and possibly human, is to prepare better for, and adapt better to, damaging events as they occur.
The wilful misuse of science by lobby groups to support their agendas has now become an epidemic. The view that more frequent or extreme climate events are occurring, as advanced by many commentators, directly contradicts the considered advice of scores of climate experts, including all those who wrote the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC).
That formal government advisory bodies such as the Climate Commission are supported in their flagrant disregard for scientific principles and facts by senior CSIRO and university research managers is cause for severe national concern.
A Climate Commission that had the safety and welfare of Australians at its heart would be advising Parliament to expend resources on community infrastructure that mitigates the hazards associated with climate extremes. It would resile from opportunistic attempts to link human tragedies such as Sandy with speculative anthropogenic global warming.
About 70 per cent of natural disasters are weather and climate related. Building resilience by ensuring early warning and planning robust infrastructure will enhance the safety and amenity of our communities. Sensible planning will also ensure that economic loss is minimised and that there is quick recovery in the aftermath. These are positive actions that carry a guaranteed benefit.
Why cannot Canberra politicians and their advisers work out for themselves that climate hazard is most effectively handled using prudent and cost-effective policies of preparation and adaptation for extreme events?
William Kininmonth is a meteorologist and former head of the National Climate Centre. Bob Carter is a palaeoclimatologist and a senior editor of the 2010 NIPCC report, Climate Change Reconsidered.