Justin Stokes for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
The October 2012 mega-storm known as Hurricane Sandy caused a massive blow to the East Coast. According to FEMA’s Sandy Recovery Office, the hurricane “forced tens of thousands of survivors into shelters and caused billions of dollars in damage” and took the lives of 73 people in the United States alone.
Though storms of Sandy’s magnitude carry their own deadly qualities, it’s the withdrawl from disaster preparedness and forward-thinking that gave the hurricane it’s teeth. Columbia University professor Adam Sobel witnessed the storm firsthand, and has since made it his personal mission to educate about future storms. His book Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future bypasses the culture of media compression and shares his findings directly with the public.
Chatting with redOrbit, Sobel shared his observations about Hurricane Sandy and the importance of acting quickly against dangers in the distance.
First thing’s first. Your book Storm Surge. Let’s talk about the inception of the book, you putting it together, and what spawned your interest in Hurricane Sandy and the following aftermath?
Right, well for about fifteen years now – let’s say about twelve years before Sandy – one of the my research interests has been hurricanes, and the climate in which they occur. But I’m also somewhat of a weather observer. I watch weather coming and going in New York often, and so when Sandy was coming – about a week before landfall –some of the models started to predict that something would happen like what eventually did, and I started paying attention to it. As the week went on, colleagues and I watched it get closer and closer, and I started getting calls for media interviews. I think the reporters wanted to talk to an academic who studies hurricanes, but also lives in New York, because of the chance that it was going to hit here. The media interest kind of “snowballed,” and I got a lot of calls.
I hadn’t talked to the media before, and that’s one of the things that led to me writing the book. What happens as scientists is that when we do our research, we study relatively narrow questions. As researchers, we try to advance the “state of knowledge,” and you do that one narrow question at a time. You study every aspect of something. You study hurricanes, hurricane climates, etc.
The notion of being a specialist, so that you may further a particular discipline by studying every detail.
Right. By necessity we ask fairly specialized questions. So you know, if you write a research paper that gets a press release, the media calls and then you’re talking about exactly the specialized topic of your research. But when they call to ask about a storm that just happened, all they know is that I’m a meteorologist, and they don’t exactly care about what my research is. They’re just calling to talk about the storm. They also ask broad questions like “What was that storm?”, “Why was it so bad for New York?”, “Was it caused by climate change?”. “What should we have done to be better prepared?” So they’re asking questions not limited to my own research expertise. It got me thinking about those broader questions, and I would ask myself “What should I have said?”
And the thing is, there’s no one who is qualified to answer all the broad questions that are asked. It’s not like the question, “What should we do next to be prepared for hurricanes?” has an answer you can find in a textbook. There’s no expert who has an absolute claim to all the knowledge needed to answer that with authority. So I realized I should have something to say about these things. I’m a scientist who is financed by government money, and the public has an interest in what we do. People care about what happened, and so I should have something to say about these things.
Many of my colleagues from related disciplines in the New York area were also involved in a huge amount of media coverage about all kinds of different issues related to sandy. So what I did in the following semester was organize a graduate course. Not just on [Hurricane] Sandy, but on all the different aspects. We met twice a week. I taught a few of the classes, but most of the time I’d have a guest speaker come in from a discipline other than mine. I had people talk about the subway systems, insurance, human psychology and decisions made in impeding disasters. At that time, I was thinking about writing a book.
I should say that I wanted to write a popular science book for some time, and I hadn’t had an idea that was good enough, but then Sandy happened and I felt that this is what I should write about. There was a huge amount of press, and I was just consuming everything. After a couple of months of this, I felt that there was a story about the storm and the aftermath. I also felt that I could use it as an excuse to write about many other scientific issues that were related. I was then able to get a publisher and a contract to write it. It’s not just the media, it was also the experience of studying one event as a meteorologist while living through it as a citizen.
So with this book, you’re combining the human experience with your interest in your discipline? Going back, let’s discuss your assessment of “basic question asking” through the media. Was there a lot of frustration with the limited amount of curiosity in media outlets?
No, actually, I would put it differently. I think the fact that I was asked the same questions over and over again made me think that if I didn’t have answers to those questions, maybe I should. It made me feel a responsibility that I didn’t before. Maybe this question is not about exactly what I do, but it’s close enough that if this is what the public wants to know – and the questions seem reasonable – then maybe it is my job to answer those questions.
But yeah… what’s frustrating for scientists dealing with the media is that we’re asked questions whose answers really are complex. We have to answer them in a short time, in a very small number of words. Especially for major outlets, like TV network news. We understand the reason for that; everyone has limited time in those shows, and you have to be concise. But often, you can’t get across all the nuances. I felt that if I wrote a book, I could put all that in there, so that people get the whole story. The format of most media stories is very limiting, and with an event the magnitude of Sandy, I feel it deserved a longer treatment.
You mentioned the human experiences in the book. What can you share about observing Hurricane Sandy?
I should say that the book is not mostly “human interest,” – it doesn’t have a lot of stories about victims of the storms, for example – but that it does have my perspective. I didn’t experience the worst of it by any means. I didn’t live in a neighborhood that was badly hit. I live up a hill, so we didn’t lose power. I didn’t even see much of the damage until quite a bit later.
In the week leading up to the hurricane… weather forecasts are only good to a point. Meteorology can’t tell you what the weather’s going to be three weeks from now. But at some point, we start to have forecasts that have some skill in them. In Sandy, that was about eight days before landfall; at that point we started getting those forecasts showing what might happen. It started out as “It might be a big deal, or it could blow out to sea and be nothing.” By about five days before, it was pretty certain that the storm would make landfall. By the weekend, it was clear that it was going to be a disaster for New York City.
That experience for me was fascinating, but also scary. Sandy, as a hurricane causing a disaster in NYC, was without precedent, at least in modern times where we have good data. There’s nothing quite like it in the historical record. So it was a really interesting event to watch. But I knew New York City was in trouble once it got within a certain range. That in itself was fascinating, because I was aware of the risks of a storm hitting here, and understanding those risks is part of my interest as a scientist. With a bad enough hurricane strike, I knew that flooding was a big risk. It’s documented; we have a lot of low lying areas and vulnerable infrastructure.
What made it a complicated experience, however, was that as it got closer and closer, it became more and more of a visible danger. At some point, it clicked in that “Wow! I actually live here.” (Laughs) And then it’s not just of academic interest. This is actually going to be real disaster where I live. The appropriate reaction was fear, but I couldn’t turn off the fascination. I think about the epidemiologists who study Ebola, and when there’s an epidemic, it’s gotta be fascinating to them. To be there when it’s happening. But it’s very scary and dangerous.
Now, I knew I wasn’t gonna die or anything. I knew that there wasn’t any personal harm. But it seemed likely that it was gonna be a big catastrophe for the city. I felt we might lose power, that the transit system might shut down, that there might be a disaster. And that people might be killed. There was an increasing level of actual personal concern. That, combined with still being fascinated as a scientist, was a complicated psychological experience that I still haven’t fully understood.
During the night of the storm, I was home talking to media and watching all of the data. I looked at the radar, the models, and all of the weather maps on the computer. I paid attention to the tide gauge, and watched the water rising. At some point on Monday night, as the landfall occurred and the storm surge was peaking, I realized that I had been inside the whole time. I just felt like “This is wrong, I’ve got to go out and see what the weather looks like,” even though the mayor was saying “Don’t go outside.” So I told my wife I would just go stand in the doorway of our apartment building to see how it is. And then I told myself “Maybe if it’s not too bad, I’ll go out a little bit further.”
It wasn’t that bad, so I walked half a mile to where I could see the Hudson River. I saw the water up over the street, near 133 St. and 12th Avenue. The water was very still, and though I knew this was a huge catastrophe, it was actually kind of a peaceful scene. But I knew what it meant.
Regarding the danger, what red flags should people be looking for regarding trends in weather patterns, and how much of that is associated with climate change? And what can be said for people who have referred to Hurricane Sandy as a “freak weather event?”
Well, there are climate change deniers… but to argue about whether the hurricane was caused by climate change doesn’t make you a “denier” by itself. The science is unequivocal now that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the climate significantly. But the science is by no means clear that Hurricane Sandy was directly related to climate change, at least if we talk about the storm itself.
We do think that a warming climate is going to make hurricanes more powerful. It may not make more or fewer of them, but the risk of a powerful hurricane may increase or decrease in some places. The relationship is a complicated story. Beyond that, Sandy was an unusual storm in a lot of ways. It was a very large, hybrid storm that merged with a Nor’easter, and it had an unusual path. All those things, and how they relate to climate change, hasn’t been studied in great detail. I don’t think the science allows us to point to a direct causality.
However, the connection between Sandy and climate change that is quite strong is sea level rise. It is happening, and there’s been an increase of about a foot in New York in the last hundred years. Maybe eight inches or so is due to the warming climate. That’s a small, but significant, part of the story. The storm surge was nine feet, and a portion of that was attributed to climate change. As we go into the future, the sea level rise is going to be faster. If we start from a higher baseline, then it takes less of a storm surge to cause the same flood. So a weaker storm will cause the same flood as Sandy did. Weaker storms occur more frequently than stronger storms. So if we don’t do anything to change the infrastructure, then coastal flood disasters will become more common.
I’m not happy about climate change denial, but the people who say that Hurricane Sandy was caused by changes in climate are overstepping the bounds of the existing science. Climate change did contribute to the flood for sure, by causing sea level rise, and it will increase the risk of similar floods more in the future. Sea level rise is definitely happening. We also are pretty confident that the rainfall in hurricanes is increasing due to climate change.
What problems lurk within the vulnerabilities of New York City’s Infrastructure?
In New York, it’s important to distinguish between before and after Sandy. Before, it was understood that there were issues. There were reports written about the risk of flooding due to a hurricane in New York City, and it was known what the damage would be from a big coastal flood. There were a number of studies. For example, the fact that the subways would flood, the transit tunnels, was known. It was known that there was a risk of power outages. These things were expected, and even though they were known, almost no investment was made in preventing them. Nobody knew when it would happen, and it seemed far away in the future. But now that Hurricane Sandy has happened, New York is seeing a much greater effort in addressing some of these vulnerabilities. Things still aren’t “storm proof,” but there’s a consciousness after the event happens.
There are many other areas on the US coast that are low-lying and at risk. Some of the obvious ones are Florida, which hasn’t had a big hurricane in a while. It’s just a matter of time, and they’re also very vulnerable to sea level rise because the state is quite flat. Also, a lot of their bedrock is limestone, which means that it’s very porous. As the sea level rises, the water will come underneath. We’ve already seen some of this in Miami, where neighborhoods have street flooding even without a storm sometimes.
Another area at risk is the Barrier Islands of North Carolina. I don’t know if this is still true, but a while ago the state made sea level rise illegal. They declared that you can’t use projections of sea level rise in capital planning, which to me is crazy.
A lot of the Eastern seaboard, as well as the Gulf Coast, has cities that could be at considerable risk from the combination of sea level rise and storms. The West Coast, in some ways, is in better shape because they’re mountainous and the land rises up a little bit quicker. They also don’t get hurricanes, though they do see other types of storms.
Could other areas outside of the coast see problems associated with climate change?
It’s certainly possible. The Midwest, for example, doesn’t get hurricanes, but the Midwest is at risk of other kinds of things. Heatwaves in particular are the most certain problems associated with climate change. In a warmer climate, they’re going to be more frequent.
Studies have now been done about an Australian heatwave that occurred over a year ago. It conclusively showed that climate change played a role in that event. I think that as time goes on, the Midwest will be vulnerable to that. Not just the urban populations, but eventually agriculture will have problems adapting to the heat stress. Floods and droughts, ironically, may both become more common, and I think the Midwest will see more of those too.
In both the prediction and prevention of hurricane damage, how far back do those initial studies go?
It depends. There was an event that caused a flood about as bad as Sandy in 1821. The city only had 150,000 people instead of eight million, so there was a lot less to destroy. That event was known, but the data wasn’t as good. And there have been storms nearby that came close to causing disaster for the city. The big one that everyone remembers was the 1938 hurricane, which the book has a chapter about. That was really disastrous for Long Island and New England, though it mostly missed the city. If it comes close, obviously everyone understands that it could have taken a different turn. So it was clear that there was some risk of a bad hurricane in New York City.
There were also a series of reports written about how New York City should prepare for a possible hurricane. One that stands out was written in 1995, and it was new in that in contained simulations. Previous reports were just based on recent historical data from the past.
But for this particular study, the government planners in charge asked the Hurricane Center to make them an estimate of what was the worst that could happen, even if it hadn’t happened in the past. So the Hurricane Center did some simulations of the worst hurricane that could hit New York. They did some simulations of what the storm surge would be, how bad the flooding would be. They came up with data that was much worse than anything that the local authorities had thought about before. In particular, they took some transit facilities, took photos of them, and drew lines showing how high the water could get. There’s one great photo that shows the old South Ferry Subway Station (at the south end of Manhattan where you get on the ferry to go to Staten Island). At the subway station, they show the water getting way above the doors where you enter from the street. This meant for sure that the subway tunnels could fill up with water. And that was less than twenty years before Sandy. Then the Metro Transit Authority built a new subway station in South Ferry to replace the old one right in the same place with no protection. They opened it in 2012, before Sandy. That cost us $550 million, and it flooded. And the cost of fixing it was $600 million, which was totaled.
So, the documentation was there that this danger was known for at least twenty years. That you should not build a subway station at this place without some sort of flood protection, but that’s what they did. And I don’t think that New York is worse than anywhere else. I think that this is typical of human nature. This report didn’t say when there was going to be a storm like this; only that someday it could happen. It’s really hard for government to make investments if they’ve never seen it happen. Now that we’ve seen it, a lot of investments like this are starting to be made.
What can people learn from the Hurricane Sandy event, and how can we prepare against that level of damage?
I think the most important thing, and I think this is how Sandy is most importantly related to climate change – not just about whether climate change played a role in Sandy per se, but what Sandy teaches us about how humans respond to risk. So what I just told you was a story of how scientists said “There’s a risk of something happening,” and it’s clear what kinds of investments you could make to be better prepared for that risk, but nobody made those kinds of investments because it was far off in the future and outside people’s experience. I think climate change is the same way. Scientists are telling the human race that something is happening; we can’t tell all the details with precision, but we know the way things are going and that it carries a bunch of risks with it. And we know what we should do, which is to find ways to reduce greenhouse gases and be better prepared for the things that could happen. By and large, it’s difficult for people to respond to this, not just because there are “deniers,” but even the people who aren’t deniers… it’s not at the top of people’s agenda. There are things happening today, and it seems so far off into the future. But I think it’s important because it is outside of people’s experience. The climate of the future is going to be quite different than the climate of the past.
The coolest summer in New York, by the end of the 21st century, is going to be hotter than the hottest summer we’ve experienced up to now, in modern human history. It’s going to bring a whole lot of changes and risks. It seems far away and vague. But I think what Hurricane Sandy teaches us is that if we could find a way to learn to act on scientific predictions before the worst is upon us… because we’re most good at being “reactive.” We tend to get a lot better at prevention once we experience the bad event once. Sandy is one example where we’re making a lot of investments. Another example is with the Dutch. The Dutch have done all these impressive modern flood control measures, but it was after they experienced a particular disaster, in 1953.
So, we’re good at being reactive. But it would be great if we could do something before we’ve experienced it. Climate change is acting very slowly, but once it’s upon us it’s going to be very hard to reverse it – you can’t really reverse it, you can only slow it down. And we’re really not good at that (being proactive about long-term risk) as a species. If you’ve read this book by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes about this. He’s a Noble-prize winning psychological whom I cite in the book. He’s brilliant, and he writes about “the availability bias.” People understand risks of something once it’s happened, and then we tend to over-estimate that something’s going to happen again soon. But if it’s never happened, people tend to under-estimate it. So in the assessment of risk, even if people know what the odds are, our level of preparation is not based on rationality. It’s based on what’s experienced recently. Since climate change is in the future, it’s hard for us to react to it now. It’s a human cognition problem that hinders our ability to overcome risk. Sandy is an example of this, even if it has nothing to do with climate change. We didn’t take it seriously enough.
Even people who believe the risk is there have a hard time seeing it as a high-priority issue. We have to get better at using rationality as a guide. The future is going to be different than the past.