Academics | Nov. 8

Predicting a hurricane's landfall and location

In February, Wilson School and geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer predicted that environmental change would increase the risk of a massive storm along the New York and New Jersey coastline — but he couldn’t have imagined how quickly that storm would arrive.

“It was kind of an eerie, accidental similarity,” Oppenheimer said on Tuesday. “Of the worst-case storms [in the current climate] which we looked at, one of them impacted New Jersey [almost] smack where Sandy hit.”

Oppenheimer’s research that appeared to predict Hurricane Sandy suggests that storms comparable to the “great hurricane” of 1821 might by 2100 occur in New York every three to 20 years rather than once every 100 years as once thought. Oppenheimer and civil and environmental engineering professor Ning Lin GS ’10 co-developed a statistical simulation to demonstrate that these storms could drive floods higher than 9 feet. In lower Manhattan last week, floodwaters reached 13 feet above background level.

While maintaining that the storm itself was not the product of environmental change, Oppenheimer attributed the severity of Sandy’s effects to higher sea levels and the Atlantic Ocean’s rising temperature.

“One thing we can say with confidence is that the [origin of the] storm itself is not attributable to global warming,” he said. “If the same storm would have come along 100 years ago, there would have been a lower flood level, because the sea level is higher now [due to global warming] and the storm can push the sea further inland. There may have been other factors involving trajectory and temperature attributable to global warming, but those are [somewhat] speculative,” he explained.

Because his research predicts more Sandy-scale storms will batter the East Coast in decades to come, Oppenheimer suggested a combination of factors to limit the impact of flooding.

Short-term measures would include raising subway entrances and discouraging or even preventing habitation in particularly at-risk, low-lying areas along the coast. Ultimately, Oppenheimer said he believes more substantial measures — such as the creation of a permanent sea wall — are necessary to ensure that the events of last week are not repeated.

In line with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presidential endorsement, Oppenheimer said he considers President Obama’s environmental track record more encouraging than Mitt Romney’s. Nonetheless, the rate of policy adaptations directed at combating climate change has been far too slow, Oppenheimer said.

Though he attributed some political lethargy to economic concerns, he said politicians are taking serious risks by procrastinating on the issue of climate change and disaster preparedness.

“We’ve been short on leadership on the global warming front,” Oppenheimer said. “Obama’s policy, in terms of global warming — while not as strong as I would like to see it — has moved things forward.”

Oppenheimer added that he hopes Obama prioritizes climate change during his second term. In his acceptance speech on Tuesday evening, Obama did reference climate change.

Oppenheimer is no stranger in Washington, having built his career at the crossroads of quantitative science and public policy. Ever since helping to orchestrate the seminal United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in the late 1980s, Oppenheimer has remained at the leading edge of both climate change research and policy. The Framework Convention led directly to the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol, largely seen as the first substantial international effort to reverse warming trends.

Oppenheimer is one of few scientists who can operate effectively in the political world, according to colleague and EEB professor David Wilcove.

“I’ve seen him interact with political leaders, with highly placed people in the business community and with the press. In all of those situations he’s had close to perfect pitch in terms of delivering the message,” Wilcove said. “He knows how to communicate with different audiences in a way that does justice to the science, but allows the person he’s talking to understand why that issue is relevant. That’s a rare skill among scientists.”

For both climate scientists and politicians, potentially dangerous hurricanes remain impossible to predict, let alone prevent through greenhouse gas reductions. Nonetheless, if any silver lining can be found, Oppenheimer said he hopes Sandy could be a warning.

“There’s a long history of bad things happening, people waking up and then going right back to sleep. The thing that keeps people from going back to sleep is political leaders exercising what they’re paid for: namely, leadership,” Oppenheimer said. “We do need that sort of leadership at all levels, including the presidential level. The rate of climate change is running ahead at this point of our ability to solve the problem.”

“Climate change has always been tomorrow’s problem, but sometime you’ve got to grapple with it. That time is now,” he added.

Oppenheimer’s research over a span of more than 30 years has centered on the effects of climate change. He has worked closely with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 along with former Vice President Al Gore.

As the author of over 100 scholarly articles, Oppenheimer’s name carries significant academic credibility in the scientific community. But more so than academic achievements, his relentless commitment to public service has been what has impressed Wilcove most.

“He often comes across to people as being kind of intimidating, but in fact to me what he really is is someone who wants to make the most of his career to advance protection of the environment,” Wilcove explained. “The more you talk to him away from the classroom, the more clearly you see that his work is driven not only by scientific curiosity, but also by a genuine desire to make a personal difference in the environment and the quality of people’s lives.”

“The end isn’t great science, the end is great science that makes a difference,” Wilcove said. “That’s wonderful to see.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article misstated the timeline for the increased frequency of large-scale hurricanes, as analyzed by Wilson School and geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer. Storms comparable to the "great hurricane" of 1821 might occur more frequently near the end of the century. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.

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