As nature pulled the trigger in mid-October, when a tropical wave left Africa and moved into the Atlantic and began to spin, scientists were able to do the short-term work of hurricane forecasting with almost eerie precision.
Days before Sandy came ashore we not only knew approximately where it would go, but that its barometric pressure would drop below previous records and hence that its gushing surge would set new marks. The computer models dealt with the weird hybrid nature of the storm—a tropical cyclone hitting a blocking front—with real aplomb; it was a bravura performance.
In so doing, it should shame at least a little those people who argue against the computer modeling of climate change on the grounds that “they can’t even tell the weather three days ahead of time—how can they predict the climate?”
But in fact “they” can tell the weather, and in the process they saved thousands upon thousands of lives. They can tell the future too. No serious climate scientist believes that the sea will rise less than a meter this century, unless we get off fossil fuel with great speed; many anticipate it will rise far more.
Think about what that means—as one researcher put it this week, it means that any average storm will become an insidious threat.
It’s possible that we can spend enough money to somehow protect Manhattan—and it’s possible that we can’t. It’s impossible to imagine that we will be able to protect, say, the Asian subcontinent, or the Pearl River delta of China, or any of the other crowded places imperiled by rising seas.
In fact, the last year has seen even more serious flooding in Bangkok and Manila, and a recent study found that New York was only seventeenth on the list of cities at risk of such flooding, with Mumbai and Calcutta leading the league.