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AXA Research Fellow Sobel Warns: Milder Storms To Cause More Damage as Seas Rise

AXA Research Fellow and climate change authority Adam Sobel, Ph.D., told a New York conference Tuesday that a future of higher seas is the most certain component of our increasing risk for the coastal floods that the Eastern Seaboard experienced with Hurricane Sandy. While significant uncertainties remain in the changes in coastal storms that climate change will bring, continued sea level rise is virtually certain. The higher the water level, the smaller the storm surge needed to create the same damage experienced when sea levels were lower.

Sobel, a Columbia University professor in both the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and the Department of Earth and Environmental Science, spoke on a panel during the 14th annual World Leadership Forum, which was sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association. The discussion was titled “Mitigating Climate Change/Investing in Sustainable Development.”

Sobel told the audience at the St. Regis Hotel that “global mean sea level rise could be one meter by the year 2100” and that “two meters was not out of the question.”

“Most models show that the number of hurricanes will decrease as the climate warms, but that their severity will increase,” he said, adding that this development and its timetable were “still very uncertain.” He cautioned that the “uncertainty should be a motivator” to prepare.

Most countries only recognize the importance of preparation after a catastrophe has struck, he said, citing the Netherlands, which was devastated by a North Sea storm in 1953, but has since been much admired for its flood preparations.

Looking at the New York City area, some parts of which are still reeling from the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Sobel said that the effect of rising seas will vary. This is because as seas rise, some land masses, such as those in parts of the New York area, are very slowly sinking due to natural causes. A higher sea level by one to two meters in the next century would increase the coastal flooding impact of a hurricane by an amount roughly equivalent to one or two categories of hurricane intensity on the Saffir-Simpson scale. For example, a category 3 storm in a future of higher seas could produce the flooding of a category 5 hurricane today, if no adaptation measures are put in place to manage the higher seas.

The subject of the panel was particularly timely, considering that barely a mile away from the forum, through traffic-clogged streets, President Barack Obama was addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the subject of climate change. Before more than 120 world leaders, he called on the globe’s largest economies, including the U.S., to take action, saying they had a special responsibility to lead the fight against global warming.

Other participants on the panel were Princeton University’s Denise Mauzerall, Professor of Environmental Engineering and International Affairs, and Lorraine Smith, leader of Eastern U.S. Operations for SustainAbility a think tank founded in 1987 to assist businesses in moving toward a sustainable future. The panel was moderated by Theodore Roosevelt IV, a managing director of investment banking at Barclays. Mr. Roosevelt is the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, who held office from 1901 to 1909.

Sobel was named an AXA Research Fellow in 2013, having received a two-year grant from the company to study the relationship between extreme weather events to the climate in which they occur. The AXA Research Fund was created in 2007 to support scientific research into environmental, socio-economic and human risk.

In October, Sobel’s research on Hurricane Katrina, which struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, will be featured as part of an AXA Research Fund-sponsored National Geographic web documentary. The Katrina-related research will form the centerpiece of National Geographic’s home page during the week of Oct.20-26. Sobel will be featured in conversations with National Geographic Explorer Jon Waterman on how best to protect people from extreme weather events in the future.

Sobel also is the author of Storm Surge, a new book about Hurricane Sandy, extreme weather of the past and future, and the globe’s changing climate. Publication is scheduled for October 14 by HarperCollins.