Contrarians argue that Hurricane Sandy isn't proof of climate change. But local scientists say the recent storm offers more damning evidence that Rhode Island's weather and landscape are undergoing a long-term transformation — one with a steep cost in dollars and human health.
Perhaps the most significant and indisputable fact is that the Atlantic Ocean is warmer, so much so that a late-October storm didn't lose steam over what should have been a colder sea. Instead, Sandy gained speed and strength as it headed north and became an enormous force of destruction.
Sea surface temperature is one of the most important variables, said John Merrill, professional of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island's School of Oceanography.
Overall, water temperatures across the eastern seaboard exceeded the threshold that incites chaotic weather and powerful hurricanes. In some locations, the warmer water might be cyclical, in others regions the warming appears permanent. The temperature of Narragansett Bay, for instance, has increased an average of 3.6 degrees since the 1960s, according to studies.
The water temperature off New Jersey was 5 to 10 degrees above normal this year. Determining an average increase for the entire Atlantic Ocean is trickier, but the tropical regions where hurricanes form are also in a warming trend.
In addition to intensifying weather, warmer water expands, causing sea levels to rise. The Northeast is considered a hotspot, with sea levels climbing four times faster than the global average. During the past 100 years, sea level has risen a foot in Narragansett Bay, according to studies. URI researchers expect it to jump 3 to 5 feet by the end of the century.
Climate Change News: What Does Hurricane Sandy Show us about Shoreline Change?