“A lot of the challenge is understanding what we as a species should do, because the disasters are getting more prevalent. In the last hundred years, both in human and financial costs, damages are skyrocketing. Most of that is just more people living in dangerous places, but climate change will be more of a factor as time goes on,” said Sobel, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and of applied physics and applied math in Columbia’s School of Engineering.
“Knowing what to do about it requires understanding not just the natural events but understanding the human systems that are affected,” he said.
Sobel takes on those issues in “Storm Surge.” He discusses climate history and the science of atmospheric phenomena like the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the North Atlantic Oscillation that set the stage for the birth of the superstorm that became part hurricane, part nor’easter. He follows the forecasters and their sometimes emotional warnings, and the damage that ensued as Sandy and its 14-foot storm surge swept into New York City on Oct. 29, 2012. And he looks ahead to those questions from the reporters: what does it mean and what should we do?
During the spring of 2013, Sobel led a graduate seminar about Superstorm Sandy that brought in experts from a wide range of fields. The class heard about disaster risk insurance and subway system design and had conversations about disaster management with the head of New York’s Federal Emergency Management Agency office and discussions about psychology and how people respond to disaster warnings.
The new Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate continues that theme. It brings experts from disparate disciplines together through workshops and conferences to inspire new questions for research and to collaborate on practical solutions, from building codes to more effective warning systems.
“Extreme events are the part of climate that gets everyone’s attention, because they cause immediate damage. That motivates action,” Sobel said. “The media outpouring during Sandy was powerful. To be confronted with the extreme interest from the outside world in the science that we’re doing—what does it mean, what happens, what should we be doing about it—that recognition was a big part of the motivation for the initiative.”
The American Meteorological Society’s Louis J. Battan Author’s Award honors a newly published book about atmospheric and related sciences that fosters public understanding of meteorology.
Learn more about the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate and the work underway at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.