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Sandy two years later

AXA Research Fellow Says Hurricane Link to Climate Change Not Yet Clear, Unlike That of Rising Seas

The question on everyone’s mind when a hurricane strikes these days is whether it’s related to climate change. Sandy’s connection to this phenomenon is still top of mind today, the second anniversary of the monster storm that struck Oct. 29, 2012.

“There’s no simple answer to that,” Adam Sobel, Ph.D., told a capacity crowd during a recent presentation at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The talk was titled “Superstorm Sandy and Climate Change: Prediction and Responses, Short-term and Long.”

“We cannot yet clearly detect a human influence on hurricanes in observations, such as those related to the effect of greenhouse gases,” he said. “There's huge natural variability” which can easily mask a climate change signal in historical hurricane records. And while scientists’ understanding of how hurricanes work allows them to make predictions about how climate change will influence hurricanes, “There's little known about how the factors that were most important in Sandy, such as its unusual size and track, will respond to climate change.”

Sobel, a Columbia professor who was named an AXA Research Fellow in 2013, 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.

However, he cautioned that “the really clear and simple link to climate is via sea level rise. “Historically, everything that flooded in Sandy was wetland or landfill. There's a lesson here.”

While Sandy had the strength of a category 1 hurricane when it slammed into the southern New Jersey shoreline as a strong post-tropical storm, the flood it caused was equivalent to that of a much stronger hurricane because of the enormous storm surge drawn from a wind field at least 1,000 miles wide, about three times the size of Hurricane Katrina’s wind field in 2005, when she hit the Gulf Coast as a more powerful and focused, storm.

Amid the uncertainty over the potential effects of climate change, one thing has greatly improved in hurricane forecasting, and that is predicting the track of the hurricane.

“Track errors at 48 hours lead time have narrowed from about 300 miles in 1970 to about 100 today,” Sobel said.

He concluded his talk by saying that while “willful denial is the most acute problem we face in dealing with global warming, at least in the U.S., it’s also the case that those who accept the science are often not motivated to take action based on long-term predictions. What happened in Sandy shows this; the impacts of a Sandy-like event were predicted decades earlier, but critical infrastructure is only being storm-proofed now.”

Sobel’s research on Hurricane Katrina is being featured as part of an AXA Research Fund-sponsored National Geographic web documentary. 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 book published this month about Hurricane Sandy, extreme weather of the past and future, and the globe’s changing climate.

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, located in Palisades, N.Y., about 25 miles north of New York City, is a unit of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The observatory seeks fundamental knowledge about the origin, evolution and future of the natural world. Learn more at www.ldeo.columbia.edu