Some scientists say that climate change may have been part of the cause of Hurricane Sandy’s strength and breadth.
Atmospheric scientist Anthony Barnston, who studies seasonal climate patterns at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said, “Climate change affects all weather and climate to a slight degree.” The change could have contributed to particular aspects of the storm, “its exact path, its strength and its huge radius of influence,” but it’s unlikely the storm is to blame for anything beyond that.
“I’ve been prepared for this for about 10 years knowing that this type of storm was going to impact New York City,“ she said.
The East River overflowed late on Monday, Oct. 29, night sending contaminated water through East Harlem and parts of the Upper East Side. One resident reportedly found fish in her car. Yet the northwestern part of Manhattan got through the storm relatively unscathed. The high winds damaged trees, but flooding did not reach the northernmost parts of Manhattan.
Barnston said that Lower Manhattan has a much greater risk of flooding than Upper Manhattan. Bennett Park at Pinehurst Avenue and 183rd Street in Washington Heights is the highest point in Manhattan, at 265 feet above sea level. Most of Central Harlem falls between 20 and 30 feet. But parts of East Harlem drop as low as 5 feet, which is well below the 10-foot minimum elevation recommended by environmental scientists, making its flood risk far more comparable to that of lower Manhattan.
Cooper said that Washington Heights is where you most want to be in Manhattan during a storm. It lies on schist rock, which makes its foundation very stable. Most significantly, the high elevation, which falls between 100 and 200 feet above sea level, keeps Washington Heights safe from flooding. “It’s called the heights for a reason,” she said. “Environmentally, this area is extremely sound.”
Climate change is an easy scapegoat to blame for environmental disasters, but they’re not always viable claims. For Sandy, “it contributed, but only by a few inches, while the full moon contributed by closer to a foot,” Barnston said. “Since the storm surge was nearly 13 feet, we can say that sea level rise was only a small player.”
Barnston said, however, the impact of climate change should not be downplayed. “In 50 years, though, its cumulative effect will of course be much larger.”