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Study: $8.1 Billion in Damages From Hurricane Sandy Linked to Climate Change

Climate change caused by human activities has been linked to a tremendous amount of destruction in communities worldwide. Scientists in a new study say they have, for the first time, put a dollar amount on the coastal storm destruction linked to human-caused environmental changes, finding that sea level rise was responsible for $8.1 billion of damages from Hurricane Sandy.

(CN) — Climate change caused by human activities has been linked to a tremendous amount of destruction in communities worldwide. Scientists in a new study say they have, for the first time, put a dollar amount on the coastal storm destruction linked to human-caused environmental changes, finding that sea level rise was responsible for $8.1 billion of damages from Hurricane Sandy.

This study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, is the first of its kind to quantify the amount of damage linked to humans from a natural disaster such as a hurricane. Researchers from the Stevens Institute of Technology, Climate Central, Rutgers University, and others contributed to the investigation.

Hurricane Sandy was an incredibly destructive climate event caused by multiple storms coming together to form one of the most notorious superstorms to ever hit land. Some referred to it as a "Frankenstorm" due to its unusual formation, size, and potency. It brought disastrous flooding and mudslides that buried homes, and violent 115 mph winds that raged across the East Coast. This monstrous hurricane opened people’s eyes to the vulnerability of coastal communities, especially as sea levels are on the rise with no signs of slowing. 

The damage estimated from this storm was approximately $62.7 billion, including homes, businesses, and public property. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the cost was closer to $70 billion. It is recorded as one of the most expensive storms to hit the United States.

In their study, the researchers found that 13% of all the damages were linked to sea level rise caused by humans. The scientists arrived at this statistic through a new climate modeling technique — one that they say can be applied to any other coastal storm to find how much of the damage is due to climate change caused by human activity.

"This study is the first to isolate the human-contributed sea level rise effects during a coastal storm and put a dollar sign to the additional flooding damage," said Philip Orton, research associate professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study. "With coastal flooding increasingly impacting communities and causing widespread destruction, pinpointing the financial toll and the lives affected by climate change will hopefully add urgency to our efforts to reduce it."

Humans contribute to rising sea levels through the burning of fossil fuels. This single activity sets off a chain reaction of events: The resulting pollutants contaminate the atmosphere, which in turn brings about warmer temperatures, which results in thermal expansion in the ocean and significant land ice and glacier loss in the Arctic.

The authors found in their research that human-caused atmospheric warming was responsible for a 4-inch rise in sea levels around New York over the past century and 55% of all sea level rise in the area since 1900 is linked to human activity. The researchers explained that the higher seas around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut helped to carry the storm inland much farther that it would have been able to reach had the sea been at a normal level. Buildings in the area suffered in turn, as increasingly high floodwaters drowned people’s homes.

To figure out the "human-contributed" costs, the team used a technique called hydrodynamic modeling to simulate Hurricane Sandy flooding in the tri-state area based on multiple scenarios, each with different sea levels. They then used another model to generate damage ranges based on the sea levels.

The researchers estimated that 71,000 people and 36,000 homes were affected from the human-linked sea level rise.

The scientists believe this strategy is going to prove invaluable for the future as more climate disasters continue to strike. The year 2020 was a record year of natural disaster damage totaling $95 billion in the U.S. alone, up from $51 billion in 2019. 

Moving forward, the team hopes to determine the cost of natural disasters caused by human-related sea level rise in other parts of the world. In particular, they hope to look at the Gulf of Mexico, which brought devastating storms in 2020 including Tropical Storm Sally and Hurricane Laura, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"If we were to calculate the costs of climate change across all flooding events — both nuisance floods and those caused by extreme storm events — that figure would be enormous," Orton said. "It would provide clarity on the severe damage we are inflicting on ourselves and our planet."

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