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Effects of climate change increase risk of storms’ impacts

A satellite image shows Hurricane Sandy as it battered the East Coast on Monday.NASA GOES PROJECT/EPA

Tweeters are calling Hurricane Sandy Mother Nature's revenge: Because so few prominent politicians have even mentioned climate change this election season, they say, she has cooked up a reminder.

Climate change is probably part of Sandy's story, scientists and environmentalists say, but there are also short-term weather forces conspiring to create the sprawling, powerful storm. The interwoven ways climate and weather operate make it difficult to say any one storm is attributable to climate change — or that it is not.

"It will always be a combination of both climate change and natural variability," said Todd Sanford, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based research and advocacy group. While researchers are studying how climate change is causing types of extreme weather to increase, he said, more important "is knowing how a changing climate is affecting the risk of impacts with these storms."


For example, rising sea levels in the Northeast, which are increasing three to four times faster than global rates, according to federal statistics, will bring more flooding and damaging storm surges that ride atop high seas. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, meaning storms could drop more precipitation.

New England has seen more erratic precipitation in recent years with extreme rain and snowfall events increasing by 85 percent since 1948, according to a climate report issued last week by US Representative Ed Markey, called "The New New England."

The hurricane got an early boost from extraordinarily warm waters off the East Coast: Sea surface temperatures from Maine to North Carolina were the highest ever recorded during the first half of 2012, a sharp rise in a gradual trend of warming ocean temperatures over the last several decades.

That warm water helped fuel Sandy as it pushed north. But instead of veering out to sea as many storms do, it ran into the jet stream, air currents several miles above the earth that dip south this time of year, said National Weather Service meteorologist Charlie Foley.


The jet stream wrapped itself around Sandy's massive circumference, and tugged it west. Adding to Sandy's difficulty in moving east is a large high pressure system off western Greenland that is "acting like a giant traffic light," Foley said. Sandy also got a burst of energy when it collided with a storm traveling east from California.

Some soggy Boston protesters initially hoped a weeklong climate vigil at Government Center would get politicians' attention. The group of around 200 people want to end the "climate silence" in the presidential campaign and in the US Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren. Climate change has not been a major part of their campaigns, although Warren has repeatedly said if the Republicans gain control of the Senate, climate change skeptic Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma could become head of the committee that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency. But Monday, the group was forced to abandon its post in anticipation of the storm they say is fueled at least in part by climate change.

Such storms are "the type of changes scientists have predicted for decades, and the candidates are not responding,'' said Craig Altemose, of the Cambridge-based Better Future Project, which organized the vigil. "We are inviting a great many more Frankenstorms, Frankendroughts and Franken-heat waves. We need leadership to connect what is happening out there and the policies that drive it."


Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globebethdaley.