Changing climate opens new discussions in NJ


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Photo by Smaranda Tolosano |

The destruction of Hurricane Sandy one year ago destroyed more than 650,000 homes.


State Climatologist David Robinson believes New Jersey’s climate is changing. He said the last few decades in New Jersey have been the warmest, and the state is getting wetter, with heavy rainfall events increasing in number.

“If I were to pick out four things, it would be warmer temperatures, somewhat slightly wetter conditions, rainfall comes in more heavy events and the sea level is slowly rising,” Robinson said. “It has risen a foot in the last century.”

What is happening in the state can be seen around the world, Robinson said, with mostly everywhere getting warmer and sea levels rising. One indicator is the sea ice melting in the Arctic Ocean more extensively during the summer.

“There is no question that Sandy would have been a somewhat different storm without climate change for the very reason that sea level wasn’t higher a century ago,” he said. “The reason for that is glaciers are melting and water is getting warmer, which made coastal flooding conditions a little worse.”

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The Rutgers-New Brunswick campus faced heavy rainfall and winds, forcing its shutdown for a week.

Although the rising sea level, increased atmospheric moisture and warmer temperatures added more fuel to the fire during Sandy, the rest of what climate change would have done is more speculative, he said.

“It is very difficult to extract the precise quantitative signal of how much warmer it was due to human activity,” he said. “We can gather it on a general sense, but in a day-to-day sense it’s not going to be possible to extract the human component from that, but there is always some level of a human component.”

As unusual as Hurricane Sandy was, Robinson said it was not completely unique, as there were other storms that have made similar impacts.

“For sure, it would have been a strong storm surge without humans impacting the climate,” he said. “It would have been a strong storm without the ocean and atmospheric temperatures being warmer. What climate change did is amplify it.”

And it could happen again. Robinson said people should have their guard up and should not assume it will be a long time before another Sandy happens. It has the potential to become more frequent in the future.

“We can’t assume, in terms of these storms, by seeing what’s happening in the past,” he said. “We’re working with a new deck of cards.”

In terms of forecasting, he said the Sandy forecast was “brilliant,” as it picked up the storm several days before the storm hit the East Coast.

“It forecasted the very unusual track,” he said. “There were very good observations from the ground, aircrafts, and satellites. The data is input into forecast models, which are better than ever. We’re learning more and the forecasts should continue to improve as we have more complete information going into them.”

Although forecasts can alert and prepare people quicker and could possibly save more lives, Robinson said it is not possible to prevent the storm itself.

“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in how we redevelop and how we live with nature better along the coast,” he said. “A lot of major economic, political, cultural and environmental decisions have to be made there. We’ve got a ways to go with that but at least the dialogue has opened.”

The state has discussed building sea walls and sand dunes to protect the shoreline, but Robinson believes these are merely stopgap measures.

“I’m not familiar with all the costs or engineering options, but at this point it’s a stopgap measure,” he said. “Ultimately the ocean is going to win out, but in the short term if the powers that be feel that it is worth that battle, I could easily say, ‘No we don’t want this, let’s just let nature take its course,’ but it is unrealistic in New Jersey.”

According to The New York Times, the borough of Bradley Beach, N.J. was protected by sand dunes.

“When Hurricane Sandy came, the force of the waves flattened the dunes but left the town’s Boardwalk and the houses just 75 feet from it intact,” the article read.

Before Sandy, several communities, such as the Township of Long Beach, protested against the construction of sand dunes due to the damage done to the ocean’s aesthetic value. But the damage done after Sandy has left more communities considering construction of the dunes, according to the article.

Robinson said these stopgap measures to armor the shorelines only address the problem on the coastal front and does not explain the inner wet lands and bays.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced funding to provide $113 million for 25 on-the-ground projects to “restore coastal marshes, wetlands and shoreline, create habitat connectivity, improve flood resilience and undertake other efforts to protect nearby areas from future storms.”

About $15 million will be spent to protect communities along 60 miles of the New Jersey coast by restoring and enhancing salt marshes, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s website.

“It’s such a complex issue,” Robinson said. “It would be really easy if no one lived there. … The wish is to push toward the mainland, but the train’s left the station. We have a highly developed coastline and we’re not going to abandon that soon.”

Joseph Seneca, a professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said it is impossible to affect the frequency and severity of storms, as they are a part of a complex interaction between natural weather systems and climate change factors.

“Going forward, [the policy system should be to] reduce the likelihood of flooding, stop rebuilding in some areas, retreat from repeatedly damaged areas, rebuild smarter, reposition and move from areas of high risk,” he said.

But the more difficult challenge is to tackle climate change globally. Seneca said the world has to reduce the rate of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, which in turn slows down the rate of global warming.

The U.S. is attempting to reduce the amount of emissions from coal and fire utility plants, and the European Union has a cap and trade system, which Seneca said limits carbon emissions and creates market incentives for businesses to reduce emissions.

“Getting worldwide coordination for an effective policy across countries like China and India has been a challenging task for the United Nations but it is something that has to be continued to be work[ed] on,” he said.


By Julian Chokkattu

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