Hurricane Irene, Climate Change, and the Need to Consider Worst Case Scenarios

Read time: 4 mins

In May of 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina, I wrote an article that nobody noticed. It was entitled “Thinking Big About Hurricanes: It’s Time to Get Serious About Saving New Orleans.” In it, I talked about how devastating a strong hurricane landfall could be to my home city:

In the event of a slow-moving Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane (with winds up to or exceeding 155 miles per hour), it’s possible that only those crow’s nests [of lakefront houses] would remain above the water level. Such a storm, plowing over the lake, could generate a 20-foot surge that would easily overwhelm the levees of New Orleans, which only protect against a hybrid Category 2 or Category 3 storm (with winds up to about 110 miles per hour and a storm surge up to 12 feet). Soon the geographical “bowl” of the Crescent City would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops—terrain they would have to share with hungry rats, fire ants, nutria, snakes, and perhaps alligators. The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris.

Afterwards, the article was passed around furiously and I was hailed for having some sort of deep insight. I didn’t: The danger was staggeringly obvious and I was only channeling what many experts at the time knew.

With all eyes now focused on Hurricane Irene, which threatens a series of U.S. east coast landfalls, it is time to think seriously once again about worst case scenarios—and also, about how global warming could amplify them. And no, I am not saying that Irene threatens to bring about a worst case, that global warming caused Irene, or taking any other silly reductionist position.

Rather, I’m saying that Irene focuses our attention on our serious vulnerability, and we need to seize that moment–because too often our default position is to act like nothing bad is going to happen.

There are several places in the United States, besides New Orleans, where a strong hurricane landfall could be absolutely devastating. These include the Florida Keys, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg, and Houston/Galveston. But they also include some east coast locations, and chief among these is New York/Long Island.

This last is currently within the forecast cone for Irene. That’s not saying that the storm portends anything like a worst-case scenario for New York City—it seems likely to be pretty weak by then, forecast tracks often change, etc—but it still could be bad if it goes directly at Manhattan. Simply put, there is a lot of wealth and personal property along that path.

The precise impact of any storm depends upon innumerable factors that cannot be known in advance. This include the storm’s size, speed, angle of approach, and much else. So I am not forecasting anything about Irene–I’m just saying it’s time to look at worst cases in general.

What’s the worst case for New York City, as the world warms and sea levels rise? Here’s what I wrote in my 2007 book Storm World:

Even as we act immediately to curtail short term vulnerability, every exposed coastal city needs a risk assessment that takes global warming scenarios into account….Scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York have been studying that city’s vulnerability to hurricane impacts in a changing world, and calculated that with 1.5 feet of sea level rise, a worst-case-scenario Category 3 hurricane could submerge “the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, lower Manhattan, and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano Bridge.” (Pause and think about that for a second.)

We live in a presentist country that rarely pays attention to long term risks or worst case scenarios, until it is too late. That’s what happened to poor New Orleans—and it’s only a matter of time until it happens somewhere else. When it comes to hurricane disasters in particular, rising sea levels make the risk steadily worse over time, whether or not hurricanes themselves get much stronger.

So what are our major coastal cities doing to protect themselves? That’s the question we should all be asking right now.

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Actually, no one had a reason to predict that the levees could fail. Even the most dire warnings to residents to evacuate in the face of Katrina did not suggest that the levees might break.

“…while many of those who remained behind had little choice in the matter, many others reasoned that they could ride out the hurricane in their own homes. It is another easily overlooked fact that those people were, for the most part, quite right in their calculatio­ns. No one ever ever asked them to evacuate on the grounds that the levees and flood walls were about to fail, and those who concluded that they could withstand the storm were essentiall­y correct in their thinking. Unfortunat­ely, they were struck low by events that had not been foretold in even the most desperate of warnings”

Freudenbur­g et al, “Catastrop­he in the Making” (Island Press, 2009) 19-20.

Irene is being compared to the 1938 New England hurricane. It went far inland with substantial power. Many trees in my grandfathers” forest fell. They lived north of the White Mountains. the town of Peterborough flooded and then burned to the water line (stoves fueled with wood fires were common then). Millions of board feet of timber were stored in Long Pond and gradually retrieved and sawed up. The scope and scale of the devastation was enormous.

Irene appears to contain a lot of water and is very large. The potential for widespread disruption and damage on the East Coast is strong. Think of Hurricane Agnes.

My check list:

1. Learn to text on my cell phone.
2. Assemble battery-operated light, check it works.
3. Buy canned meat and vegetaables that can be eaten raw.
4. Figure out what to do without the internet.

“Irene is being compared to the 1938 New England hurricane.”

How is this possible? I thought Global Warming was to blame for these things called hurricanes that have obviously NOT been happening since the beginning of time as we previously thought.

As noted by Gaye Tuchman, distinguished sociologist and author of Wannabe U, “one should always look behind language that would seem to attribute calamity to unpreventable weather. This vocabulary,” she warned, “denied human agency. It minimized the individuals and institutions whose actions could often be found hiding behind all the talk of water and wind.”

Not only does such language they deny “human agency” behind climate catastrophes, it completely ignores the real cause of hurricanes: Witchcraft!

Or Cthulu.

If only there were some… “natural” explanation for falling and rising temperatures.

Such a hypothetical source of warming would have to be massive, however. On the order of magnitude of our own Sun.

Naaaah, definitely witches.

If you live in a low lying area be ready to evacuate and evacuate early. While this storm is not unprecedented, it is an unusual event and will catch people unprepared.

Preparation for this and future events would lessen their impact. Denying reality simple leaves people exposed and makes for greater tragedy.

It is unlikely to be seventy years until the next, change the building codes now.

So, it looks like much extra fresh(ish) water will be joining that sea water already affecting the footings of the new construction at NY Ground-Zero because of rising sea levels.

For those who don’t know it here is a blog worth paying attention to:

Irene’s eyewall collapses; further intensification unlikely

But for those with short attention spans - read beyond the headline.


However, since Irene is such a huge storm–tropical storm force winds extend out up to 290 miles from the center–it has set a massive amount of the ocean’s surface in motion, which will cause a much larger storm surge than the winds would suggest. At 9:30am EDT this morning, a wind analysis from NOAA/HRD (Figure 1) indicated that the potential storm surge damage from Irene rated a 5.1 on a scale of 0 to 6. This is equivalent to the storm surge a typical Category 4 hurricane would have. While this damage potential should gradually decline as Irene moves northwards and weakens, we can still expect a storm surge one full Saffir-Simpson Category higher than Irene’s winds. Since tides are at their highest levels of the month this weekend due to the new moon, storm surge flooding will be at a maximum during the high tidal cycles that will occur at 8 pm Saturday night and 8 am Sunday morning. At those times, Irene is expected to be near the NC/VA border, then close to Long Island, NY, respectively. Thus, storm surge damage rivaling that experienced during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 is likely in northern NC, southern Maryland, and up Chesapeake Bay on Saturday night.

Irene likely to bring destructive fresh water flooding
In addition to storm surge, flash flooding and river flooding from Irene’s torrential rains are the main threats. The hurricane is expected to bring rains in excess of 8” to a 100-mile-wide swath from Eastern North Carolina northwards along the coast, through New York City. The danger of fresh water flooding is greatest in northern New Jersey, Southeast Pennsylvania, and Southeast New York, where the soils are saturated from heavy August rains that were among the heaviest on record. <–endquote–>

That is really quite appropriate, when one thinks about all the “what global warming?” statements that went around during the snowstorms early in the year.

And its quite right, of course. Weather is not climate.

However, climate can, and does, affect weather. Surely that concept is easy enough to understand?

Hurricanes in New York are currently very rare beasts indeed.
Should global warming give New York a climate more like South Carolina or Florida, things might be a little different. After all, hurricanes are driven by warm sea surface temperatures (or SST).

Lets ask an expert - “the trend in tropical SST cannot be explained by natural internal variability and/or volcanic eruptions or solar variability, and the observed trend is consistent with model simulations associated with forcing from greenhouse gases”.

From J. A. Curry, P. J. Webster, AND G. J. Holland (2006) Mixing politics and science in testing the hypothesis that greenhouse warming is causing a global increase in hurricane intensity Bull. Am. Meteor. Soc. Aug 2006, 1025-1037.

Yes, *that* J. Curry…

‘However, climate can, and does, affect weather. Surely that concept is easy enough to understand?’

Indeed or as attributed in comment 19 at:

‘The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Deke Arndt puts it more colorfully: “Weather throws the punches, but climate trains the boxer,” he says.’

I repeat:

“Weather throws the punches, but climate trains the boxer,”

Irene brings back memories of Yasi here in Australia with the armchair experts criticizing the New York Mayor for telling them to evacuate.

Here in Australia we had a couple of false alarms in QLD before cyclone Yasi arrived on the scene. The mayor of Brisbane QLD asked residents in low lying flood prone areas to evacuate.

The floods never eventuated that time & the residents were furious.

“Why did you tell us to evacuate when nothing happened? You idiot!”

Then cyclone Yasi a cat 5 cyclone hit not long afterwards & again the mayor said evacuate. Many chose to ignore the warnings & lost everything including their lives. Most were given 2-3 days warning that the waters coming towards Brisbane city would be massive. Many chose to ignore the warnings.

After the massive damage & lives lost people were asking why there wasn’t sufficient warnings?! There was 3 DAYS warning ! Likewise, with Irene, Chris Mooney posted this post on the 25th, with predicted trajectory. It’s now 3 days later, the 28th, when it finally hit New York & lives are lost.

Climate change , Irene & Yasi share a common problem. Even when people are warned repeatedly, they CHOOSE to dismiss the warnings.

So what are you saying? What does Katrina and Irene have to do with climate change? There are powerful hurricanes every year, always have been. Katrina was a catastrophy because it happened to make a direct strike in the exact “perfect” area of New Orleans and the systme never was strong enough for a hurricane of that force.

Irene just happened to skim it’s way up the east coast affecting the highest concentration of our population.

Both hurricane scenarios happened before and will happen again. The only thing we can change is our preparedness. So, you are right about that

Katrina and Irene are the offspring of human ghg pollution. Primarily the meat industry. Those chickens are coming home to roost!!!!!

Isn’t it about time desmog went after the meat barons?

“Katrina and Irene are the offspring of human ghg pollution. Primarily the meat industry. ”

Primarily the meat industry?

Mate, where do you get your facts & figures? From a Dr Seuss book? The meat industry is a contributor, but it’s way down on the list of suspects. We attack the biggest offenders first, not the smallest. Sheeesh.

My main point is that there is a serious disconnect here. Environmental concerns are always directed at big oil and big coal. Ultimately the western consumer is big oil and big coal and well… Big meat too.

The basic argument is that change needs to come from the individual and when it does corporations will follow along.

The point is it’s all your fault so do something about it … Or not - your choice.

I didn’t do anything about it, but my forefathers did. They moved off of the Virginia coast (due to the common storms AND abundant farmland)eventually to Ohio in the mid 1800s. No hurricanes here, but plenty of tasty animals and methane.

I summise that your conclusion about colonial hurricanes was too much tobacco, madera wine, slave labor.. I give?

Rick, if you have cancer & an ingrown toenail, you don’t prioritize the toe.

Yes, the toe should,’t be ignored, but there cancer needs to be priority 1.

“The point is it’s all your fault so do something about it … Or not - your choice.”

It’s not as simple as that Rick, hence why websites like this are here & why you are trying to defend fossil fuels. It’s one thing to change your dietary habits, it’ another thing to have your beliefs on a scientific matter directed by fossil propaganda & lobbying, as well as the myriad of website that are out there to defend the conservative narrative of USA, Can & Oz because they are funded by fossil fuel companies.

People are tricked all the time. We see & hear it everyday on the net alone. Similarly, fossil fuel lobbyists & their backers try to sway votes by tricking the public into not trusting the science & scientists that they have come to trust over hundreds of years.

Smoking? It’s good for you. Here are 26,000 physicians that can testify to the fact. This doctors & scientists favourite smoke is camel…. etc etc. Even when it’s so obviously bad. People can be tricked into disbelieving the scientists.

Remember, folks: WEATHER IS NOT CLIMATE!

(… except when they can use it to prop up their failed narrative.)

[d’Smogblog: Still censoring comments, still blocking IP addresses. What are they trying to hide?]

Many have been greatly affected by hurricane Irene. Homes, establishments,properties and even lives have been lost. I have heard that one of businesses affected is car sales. Automotive News reports that regardless of the projections of some experts, August auto sales dropped. The explanations for this were primarily two-fold, according to experts: dropping consumer confidence and the disturbance brought on by Hurricane Irene along the East Coast. Article resource: August auto sales fall below expectations, post-Irene. Whether natural or manmade, extreme events often tell us something important about human beings, revealing their priorities and reflecting their character. This is also the perfect time to share what you have and help other people.