Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dr. Jeffrey Donnelly, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In the time since we wrapped our episode of Years of Living Dangerously with Ian Somerhalder, my team has had a chance to take a closer look at the cores we collected on the show. And what we’ve found only serves to underscore what our previous work has shown us: Society’s collective experience with storms — intense storms — on the East Coast is not the norm.

The record preserved in the sediment cores you’ll watch us extract from blue holes has revealed that the last few hundred years was relatively quiet with respect to the frequency of intense hurricanes when compared to the several centuries prior. That means we can and should expect stronger storms more frequently at some point in the future.

That’s only half the story, however. Our work has also shown us that the more active periods in the western Atlantic occurred when the ocean was naturally warmer than normal. Today, with humans taking a more participatory role in Earth’s climate system, we are once again seeing water temperatures rising, this time largely as a result of human-caused global warming.

At the same time, we’ve taken advantage of this relatively quiet period to build trillions of dollars of infrastructure along the East Coast, much of it fixed in place and much of it designed and constructed under the assumption that sea level is static. But, as the tide gauge just down the street from my office indicates, sea level on the East Coast has risen nearly a foot since 1900 and is picking up speed.

Add to that the prospect of an increasing number of events that exceed hurricane Sandy, which caused more than $70 billion in damage despite the fact that it was not particularly intense, and you can understand the chill that runs down my spine when we open another core.

We are quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Or rather we are between a hard place of our own design and an increasingly threatening ocean.

Dr. Jeffrey Donnelly is a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The overarching goal of his research program is to understand how changes in climate have altered terrestrial and coastal systems in the recent geological past.

Credit: Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.