What does climate change mean for the South Shore?
This image of the Great South Bay, taken from a dock at Corey Beach in Blue Point, is a testament to the extremes in temperatures, which have been attributed to climate change.

IB/Perrotta

What does climate change mean for the South Shore?

Story By: ANTHONY PERROTTA
1/18/2018


SUFFOLK COUNTY—We often hear it’s too early to talk about a certain topic after a related major incident. This is most common with the gun debate. Well, it’s been two weeks since Winter Storm Grayson hammered the East Coast and it’s time to talk about climate change. In order to do that, Islip Bulletin has spoken with Scott Mandia, assistant chair and professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College. 

We have certainly had powerful nor’easters like Grayson in the past, but Mandia says there are two ways climate change is making storms worse.  First, the ocean temperatures are rising, which means there is now more moisture available for these storms to intensify. “When water vapor condenses inside the storm, it releases heat, which drives more powerful wind and rising motion,” he said. This also means more precipitation will fall. 

Rising sea levels are also causing much more coastal flooding. “Humans have caused about a foot extra sea-level rise in the New York-metro region, which is a significant rise,” Mandia said. “Now weaker storms can topple coastal barriers.” An analogy he uses is to picture a 10-foot basketball hoop. Only the tallest players can dunk. If we raise the floor a foot so the rim is only 9 feet high, smaller players can dunk. “The dunk is the water flowing over a sea wall, or rather, a barrier,” Mandia said. “[The most recent storm] had significant flooding, especially in eastern New England, where all-time flood records were set.”

Many people ask: how do experts reconcile the intense snowstorms on the East Coast with the increasingly warmer temperatures throughout the globe – particularly, the melting Arctic? 

Mandia said there are quite a few studies showing that the eastern United States is experiencing more storms over the past several decades, which have produced large snowfall totals. “Very cold air cannot hold as much moisture, so the largest snowfall storms tend to be one where the air is close to the 32 degrees Fahrenheit mark,” he said. “Winters are getting shorter due to global warming, so there are going to be fewer days where it is cold enough to snow. However, when it is cold enough to snow, it is expected that there will be greater snowfall total due to the greater amounts of moisture in the air. This is precisely what we have been experiencing. It is undeniable physics.”

Mandia also pointed out the fact that 17 of the past 18 years have been the warmest on record. “It is not surprising that some regions of the globe can be colder than normal for a few days or weeks. This is just ‘weather.’ Climate is the bigger picture over the longer time frame,” he said, adding that 2017 will likely end up being the second-warmest year on record. 

As for Long Island, sea-level rise and the possibility of larger coastal storms and hurricanes are the greatest concerns, particularly for the South Shore.

“We all pay for cleanup, whether it be directly for repair or indirectly for a slowed economy,” Mandia said, adding we have three choices: fortify the coastline, elevate structures, or retreat. “None of these are choices we want to make, and all of them are costly,” he said. “Unfortunately, the longer we wait to adapt to rising seas and stronger storms, the more costly these options become.”

In 2010, Mandia co-founded the Climate Science Rapid Response Team – a group of over 160 of the world’s top climate scientists who work to provide accurate climate science information to media and government representatives. In 2012, he co-founded the nonprofit Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, whose goal is to help scientists conduct research without the threat of politically motivated attacks. 

When asked what he tells those who are skeptical of climate change, Mandia says the vast majority (97-98 percent) of the world’s climate scientists understand that humans now control the climate, adding that experts from health, military and financial sectors also agree. “Every known natural cause of climate change is trying to cool the planet, yet we are warming at a rapid rate,” he said. “The real questions concern solutions, which means policy discussion. Policy is where there is plenty of room for honest debate, but we need to act fast.”

President Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax and said, back in June of last year, that he would like to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. But these are just “words,” according to Mandia. He noted that there are many governors, mayors and business leaders who have publicly pledged that their states, cities and corporations will honor the Paris agreement. 

“This makes sense because reducing carbon emissions improves the economy, health, and national and global security,” Mandia said. “It’s just a shame that the Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt and other high-ranking officials are doing the bidding of multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel corporations to make a buck at the expense of the rest of us down the road.” 

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the very organization he now leads over a dozen times for their “activist agenda.” 

Mandia says his students often ask why he remains so hopeful on the subject, despite such denial at the highest federal levels. “I tell them, ‘Because reducing emissions can make a dollar. It is already happening and will continue to happen at a faster pace. Companies see the value of cleaner tech and are moving ahead despite the political rhetoric from the White House and half of Congress.’”

He calls this the LED light bulb metaphor. “Many of us now have LED light bulbs, even though they are a bit more expensive,” Mandia said. “Why do we eagerly install them? Because we know they will save us even more money over the life of the bulb. This is the same reason we invest in retirement accounts or savings accounts. Spend a little now to make more down the road—the American way.”

Mandia is the co-author of the book “Rising Sea Levels: An Introduction to Cause and Impact,” as well as a series of weather and climate learning modules geared towards non-science major college students.