Hurricane Sandy: Will Obama and Romney talk about climate change now?

I am monitoring the progress of Hurricane Sandy as the Category 1 storm spins toward the East Coast, and we all anxiously wait to see whether it’s going to make its predicted hard left in the mid-Atlantic or hold off for a more northern landfall.

Like many reading this, I have friends and family  back East, stretching from the Washington, D.C. area to Boston, and I’m sure some of them are in for some very uncomfortable, powerless days. I talked with my younger sister in Silver Springs, Md., this morning — her neighborhood almost always blacks out in big storms — and while I haven’t talked with my 91-year-old father yet, he volunteers for the D.C. area Red Cross, so it’s likely he’s already busy preparing to set up emergency shelters.

Certainly utilities across the country are all on high alert — check out the Edison Electric Institute’s Twitter feed, where East Coast power companies are posting links to their emergency plans and utilities from Alabama, Mississippi and Texas have said they are  putting together crews to send east.  People have been warned to prepare for power outages of 7 to 10 days.

The danger is that Sandy is going to hook up with a monster nor’easter blowing in from the north, becoming one big mess — rain, snow, high winds and coastal surges — that will park itself over the East Coast.  If you want to see something really scary, take a look at the computer models on the National Hurricane Center website of the rainfall potential if the two storms collide.

While the mainstream news coverage thus far is focusing mostly on the storm itself and the emergency preparations underway, questions are surfacing on weather and climate savvy websites about whether and to what extent climate change is contributing to this unprecedented confluence of extreme weather events.

Jordan Nichols writing on Climate Science Watch, nails the irony of the storm arriving just as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been criticized for not addressing climate change in any of their three televised debates.

Indeed climate change does not wait for any mortal — or election cycle for that matter.  But you have to see the irony in this unfortunate series of events.  As media and well-known activists call out the candidates for ducking climate change, it seems Mother Nature is sending us a message . . . “you can ignore climate change all you want, but its not going away.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I am sure these climatic events would have occurred whether or not the current administration was talking about climate change, but it does seem odd.  The trend of climate silence has coincided with unprecedented extreme weather in the United States during the last few years.  As politicians and environmental groups strayed away from even speaking the words climate change, it has only gotten worse.

Exactly how climate change may be contributing to the intensity and unprecedented nature of this storm is complex, as Andrew Freedman points out in his post on Sandy on Climate Central. Part of the convergence of different weather patterns all coming together on the East Coast includes a high pressure area, called a blocking high, near Greenland, he writes.

Recent studies have shown that blocking patterns have appeared with greater frequency and intensity in recent years, which some scientists think may be related to the loss of Arctic sea ice as a result of global warming. The 2012 sea ice melt season, which just ended one month ago, was extreme, with sea ice extent, volume, and other measures all hitting record lows.  The loss of sea ice opens up large expanses of open water, which absorbs more of the incoming solar radiation and adds heat and moisture to the atmosphere, thereby helping to alter weather patterns. Exactly how weather patterns are changing as a result, however, is a subject of active resesarch.

Dr. Jeff Masters, writing on the Weather Underground website, also spoke about the impact of the warming of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly off New England:

If Sandy makes landfall farther to the north near Maine and Nova Scotia, heavy rains will be the main threat, since the cold waters will weaken the storm significantly before landfall. The trees have fewer leaves farther to the north, which will reduce the amount of tree damage and power failures compared to a more southerly track. However, given that ocean temperatures along the Northeast U.S. coast are about 5°F above average, there will be an unusually large amount of water vapor available to make heavy rain. If the trough of low pressure approaching the East Coast taps into the large reservoir of cold air over Canada and pulls down a significant amount of Arctic air, the potential exists for the unusually moist air from Sandy to collide with this cold air from Canada and unleash the heaviest October rains ever recorded in the Northeast U.S., Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. This Northeast U.S. scenario would probably cause damages near $100 million.

Another point Nichols makes is key — the computer models being used to predict how Sandy may or may not interact with the nor’easter come with a big caveat. They are trying to make sense of weather patterns that are, as repeatedly noted, unprecedented. We are increasingly moving into weather we can’t control, can’t predict and for which we are increasingly unprepared.

Some climate scientists have predicted that the really extreme impacts of climate change, which could occur fast and furiously, will be preceded by a period of increasingly erratic weather. What we don’t know is where the tipping point is; we have no precedents, no computer models.

And that makes the political silence and lack of strong leadership even more dangerous.

Certainly in the coming days, Obama and Romney will make statements on the storm — sympathy and promises of help for the victims, rallying cries for the country to come together.

What we really need to hear is how they are going to meet the mounting challenges of climate change and prepare the nation for the perfect storm of environmental, economic and social upheavals that may lie ahead.