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After Sandy: A Scientist’s Perspective on Weather

By Sasha Ingber

We’ll be interviewing various experts about the impact of Hurricane Sandy and what lies ahead. For the big picture about hurricanes, we spoke to Jim Kossin, atmospheric research scientist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center.

Could Hurricane Sandy be the result of climate change?

It’s not fair to say it’s associated with climate change. It’s very difficult to attribute an event like Hurricane Sandy to a change in climate because it’s challenging to connect the immediateness of a single event to the time scales that we talk about for climate change. But conveying this to the public is really hard.

Are more hurricanes likely?

The number of very strong land-falling hurricanes has decreased over the last number of years in places like Australia. But they have become more common in the Atlantic—there is no question about it. Researchers seem to agree that there will be an overall reduction in the global number of hurricanes, but the strong ones will get even stronger.

Why is the Atlantic region seeing a rise in hurricanes?

One thing we know is that the climate of the Atlantic has changed since the mid-1980s, becoming warmer and more conducive to hurricanes. Where disagreement lies is what causes it. Some think it has nothing to do with climate change, and a growing body of evidence suggests that it has to do with aerosol pollution—basically small particles of a sulfate, a salt of sulfuric acid. There is this idea that after the Clean Air Act of 1970, pollution decreased and then the sun hit and warmed the water. If that were the case, by decreasing pollution, we would have increased hurricane activity—but that’s a tricky thing to say publicly.