September 9th, 2013 by

Flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy storm surges in Morris Canal Park in Jersey City

Flooding in Morris Canal Park in Jersey City caused by Hurricane Sandy storm surges. Credit: Augie Ray

New research published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society is helping to determine the role that climate change may have played in a number of 2012’s most extreme weather events.

Seventy-eight meteorologists, working in several teams, analyzed the likelihood of the weather events under different models: those representing current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and others using pre-industrial levels. Analyzing 12 extreme weather events of 2012, they found that climate change had played a role in half of them.

Some of the most difficult events to determine climate change’s role in were precipitation and drought events. While a drought that occurred in Spain was found to have a link to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the Great Plains drought was determined not to have any direct relation to climate change. On the other hand, the strongest links involved heat waves. The researchers found that the unusually high July temperatures in the northeastern and north-central U.S. were made four times more likely by climate change. Storm surges were also found to have links to climate change. Sea-level rise has made events like Hurricane Sandy 50 percent more likely. In fact, it’s predicted that by 2100, such events — previously once-in-a-lifetime occurrences — will take place every couple of decades on the Atlantic Coast from Atlantic City southward.

This news underscores the importance of our coastal forests and reminds me of another study released earlier this year — a study that found that without our coastal buffers, like mangrove forests and wetlands, twice as many Americans would be at risk of storm surges. And that number could be even greater in the future as sea-level continues to rise. That’s why our Global ReLeaf projects include projects focused on replanting coastal buffers — such as the Replant South Mississippi Partnership, which planted nearly 8,000 trees where many had been lost to Hurricane Katrina, and our projects planting and protecting mangrove forests in China.

But, being able to attribute specific weather events to climate change, also known as the science of attribution, is still in its infancy. “The more we do this in the future … the easier it’s going to get,” report editor Peter Stott, a researcher at the U.K. Met Office Hadley Center, tells E&E News. “This is really quite an exciting research area, and it has a real potential to provide answers to people asking questions in their particular location.” In the meantime, we need to protect and restore the ecosystems that can help mitigate the effects of these increasingly common extreme weather events. Join American Forests to help.