Ecocentric

Frankenstorm: Why Hurricane Sandy Will Be Historic

The name may be funny—Frankenstorm—but be advised: Hurricane Sandy is no joke

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NASA

A handout picture shows Hurricane Sandy off the US east coast, with maximum sustained wind speeds of 140 km/h.

The name may be funny—Frankenstorm—but be advised: Hurricane Sandy is no joke. Over the weekend meteorologists were running out of frightening things to say about Sandy, which by the time it makes landfall on Monday evening—most likely in New Jersey—will almost certainly be the largest storm to ever hit the East Coast, with a reach that extends some 450 miles beyond its core. Sandy truly will be the perfect storm—not just because a hurricane is meeting a northern blockage that will fuel its strength as it hits land as well as another western storm system, but because Sandy is set to strike the richest and most populated part of the U.S. “We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,” said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). A drone strike couldn’t be better targeted to cause maximum damage than this storm.

(PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy Ravages East Coast)

A NOAA video shows what’s happening as Sandy collides with the other fronts (h/t Andy Revkin):

It’s not so much that Sandy is an incredibly strong storm, with winds at about 85 mph. NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division put the destructive power of Sandy’s winds at a modest 2.6 on a scale of 0 to 6. The real danger comes from the potentially huge storm surges the hurricane could cause along coastal areas. NOAA put the storm surge threat from Sandy at 5.7 on that 6 point scale—greater than any hurricane observed between 1969 and 2005, including Category 5 storms like Katrina and Andrew. NOAA’s National Hurricane Center says that “life-threatening storm surge flooding” is expected along the mid-Atlantic coast.

For coastal cities, such surges—amplified by the fact that Sandy will be hitting during high tide—could prove disastrous. Storm surges are expected to reach 4 to 8 ft., if not higher, as Sandy pushes vast amounts of ocean water onto the land. In and around New York City, it could be worse, with storm surges predicted to reach as high as 11 ft.—nearly a record—in northern New Jersey and Long Island Sound. Preliminary forecasts suggest that lower Manhattan could experience its highest waters since at least 1851.

That’s why Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Sunday morning that the city would evacuate low-lying areas, meaning that some 370,000 people—a population equal to that of Minneapolis—may need to move. The city also shut down its subway, bus and commuter rail services, beginning at 7 PM on Sunday. (Buses were shut down two hours later.) That decision—also taken when Irene neared New York last year—was made to try to reduce the risk of damage to subway equipment in tunnels, which could  flood depending on the extent of the surge. “I give a 50% chance that Sandy’s storm surge will end up flooding a portion of New York’s subway system,” wrote Jeff Masters of the Weather Underground’s Wunderblog.

(MORE: ‘Frankenstorm’: Worse Than Sum of Its Parts)

It’s not clear when New York’s subway service will be restored, but if the flooding is severe, it might be a long, long time. New York just barely avoided disaster during Irene in 2011—Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, noted last year that if the storm surge had been just 1 ft. higher, subway tunnels under the Harlem and East River would have been unusable for a month, at an economic cost of $55 billion. The threat to the subways is another reminder that the economic cost of a storm has as much to do with where it hits as it does with how strong the hurricane is in the first place.

And make no mistake: Sandy is a freak. While it’s not unheard of for hurricanes to form this late in the year—the actual Atlantic hurricane season extends another month—storms will usually be pulled out to sea by a semi-permanent low-pressure system near Iceland. But that’s not what happened with Sandy, as meterologist Eric Holthaus points out:

The coincidence of that strong of a high pressure “block” being in place just when a hurricane is passing by — in and of itself a very rare occurrence — is just mind bogglingly rare. It’s the kind of stuff that’s important enough to rewrite meteorological textbooks. The result: Instead of heading out to sea Sandy’s full force will be turned back against the grain and directed squarely at the East Coast.

(MORE: After Levee Blast, More Rough Water Ahead)

The sheer oddness of Sandy’s arrival begs the obvious question: Is climate change involved here? Many environmentalists certainly think so. But scientists are always reluctant to link climate change to any specific weather event, and the impact of warming on hurricanes have proved particularly difficult to untangle. The last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report noted that scientists have “low confidence” in long-term increases in tropical cyclone activity due to man-made warming. It’s true that warming does increase the amount of moisture in the air, which can make storms rainier—just as we saw with Irene last year, and potentially with Sandy now. But don’t be fooled by cautious scientists—we can expect that global warming will likely bring about stronger and potentially more destructive storms and other natural disasters like Sandy.

What we know is that, climate change or not, big storms will happen—and if they hit populated areas, they will cause damage. The immediate challenge is to prepare for those disasters, and in the future, build societies and infrastructure that can be resilient to the sort of catastrophes that we know will continue to unfold in the future. Sandy killed at least 61 people as it made its way through the Carribbean—53 of them in the desperately poor country of Haiti, which remains consistently unprepared for natural disasters. Sandy will almost certainly cause billions of dollars of damage when it hits the East Coast. We’re unlikely to see a severe death toll, thanks to the fact that rich societies like the U.S. have gotten better at predicting and preparing for storms. (The famous 1938 Long Island Express hurricane, another historic storm, killed some 800 people in the U.S.—a death toll that would be impossible to imagine today.) As Sandy looms, let’s hope we’re ready.

MORE: Climate Change Equals Hot Summers. Case Closed.

21 comments
joukot
joukot

The U.S. is a funny country. It can be proud of some of the best scientists in the world. At the same time, much of the population want to deny any impact of science on their lives. Its like spoiled kids, anything sweet is gladly accepted, but any advice by science to behave in a responsible way tastes so sour, so sour.

LindaHsi
LindaHsi

Terrible frankenstorm! No joke God gives us so many warning stories. When will people truly admit that love our earth is a really seriously things and no more carbon approach? It's natural disaster or humen disaster?

bowspearer
bowspearer

The irony is that this article merely uses fear to propagate the myth of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) when CERN conclusively proved last year that the Sun and Cosmic radiation are the causes of climate change and not human industry ( http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/jamesdelingpole/100102296/sun-causes-climate-change-shock/ ). Furthermore, considering the fact that every 62 million years (+/-3 million) this planet experiences an extinction level event (http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/ciencia_astrosciences07.htm) ; it is most probable that what we are seeing, despite human arrogance's desire to suggest we could even be remotely responsible for this happening, that we are actually in the throes of an extinction level event - especially when recent activity in the Ring of Fire is taken into account. Considering 8 comments appear to have "disappeared" from this article; it will be ineresting to see whether this comment remains or also "disappears".

SarahKelly
SarahKelly

A little bewildering in the editorializing on this one: first, you give us the science behind the storm and state that scientists are reluctant to blame global warming, then you tell us to not be "fooled by cautious scientists" and proceed to blame the storm -- and future storms, preemptively -- on global warming. A strange way to write a science article.

glubber
glubber

I suggest that scientists tells us how the hurricanes can be killed before it gets realy bad as with Sandy. Will present actions help killing hurricanes at birth? What can be done beside observations? THis is the scientists challange! Join forces and tell ut what can be done and if present actions will help at all!?

AndrewRichards
AndrewRichards like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

The problem with this article is that it dangerously deals in half truths. The fact is that we know that Anthropogenic (man-made) Global Warming is a hoax. However climate change due to external forces is very real and things will indeed get worse before they get better.  In fact the vast bulk of the litany of natural disasters we've faced have been due to increased volcanic and tectonic activity, with the Ring of Fire having gone crazy within the last couple of years, with no sings of it easing.

What people need to understand is that in our glaxy, while our planet orbits our star, our star, orbits the galaxy. However it's more complicated than that. Our star's orbital movement is actually sinusoidal and unfortunately, where up until recently we've been shielded by other solar systems and stellar bodies, our orbital pattern now sees us crossing over the orbital plane into the northern hemisphere of the galaxy, where we are far more exposed to cosmic radiation and forces. This occurs roughly every 62.5 million years. Corelating with this a study at the University of Berkely which discovered that extinction events occur roughly every 62.5 million years (findings have been that the actual events take a few million years to occur); and what you actually find is that the wild weather we are facing has virtually nothing to do with human CO2 emitions, but is rather an extinction level event taking place.

TheLeader
TheLeader

@AndrewRichards Denial only makes things worse. You are the one dealing in half truths. Here, educate yourself - http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528804.400-if-2013-breaks-heat-record-how-will-deniers-respond.html

bowspearer
bowspearer

@TheLeader @AndrewRichards And yet I never denied that climate change was happening - merely pointed out that AGW was a fraud perpetuated by the Eugenics lobby. In fact CERN have completely debunked AGW in the past year and proven that the Sun and cosmic rays are the primary drivers of climate change. In fact, in comparison, man made emissions and their effect on the climate are utterly miniscule. The irony here is that you are telling me to educate myself when you simply regurgitate what you have been told rather than critically investigating and analysing your sources.

glubber
glubber

@TheLeader @AndrewRichards  Yoyur ref.: @....The US sweltered in the hottest July on record, following the hottest spring on record. .....@ 

I can tell you that on our trip to the nothern Norway this summer was the coldest ever but with a lot of rain. Latest years has been the same and definitly not as it used to be back in time. There is no global warming in polar areas.The ice is melting and freezing back again during winter time. Nothing of this is manmade for sure!

TheLeader
TheLeader

@glubber @TheLeader @AndrewRichards With due respect glubber, a lot of rain only confirms that there is too much moisture in the atmosphere. The other thing that most scientists agree on the effects of global warming is a resulting increase in extreme weather phenomenon (like coldest summer ever) in different places. The overall warming is for average global temperatures...

extraneous
extraneous

This reporter is nuts, hes out in the middle of a hurricane, telling people to go inside youtube    com/watch?v=RS--Cfk9ayw

choystaxi
choystaxi

Did this reporter never hear of Hurricane Katrina? 800 people is "a death toll that would be impossible to imagine today" because of "the fact that rich societies like the U.S. have gotten better at predicting and preparing for storms"? How quickly we forget. Yes we have short attention spans, but 2005 was not THAT long ago, was it?

winknicole
winknicole

Hmmm, Maybe I should be scared for December 21st. Let's hope we can all breath a sigh of relief on December 22nd. 

PATRickmullins
PATRickmullins

Climate change is real and i hope Sandy does not make this point too strongly,and it will not be as destructive as being reported as a possibilty.Am happy I am far away in western Australia.

RugeirnDrienborough
RugeirnDrienborough like.author.displayName 1 Like

Oh, no, "don’t be fooled by cautious scientists." Heaven knows you can't rely on them. They use data! How could anyone be trusted who does that? No, no, you're much better off being fooled by journalists. They go by their short-term memories and the seats of their pants.Of course, not being fooled is better. But how can you manage that? Thinking for yourself is hopeless, we all know that.

JeffBurdick
JeffBurdick

Except those on the immediate coastline who should naturally evacuate, who isn't amused by the saturation media coverage of Hurricane Sandy? "Frankenstorm" -- coming to a TV screen near you, from the makers of Hurricane Irene. But shouldn't 90% of all hyped "weather events" end the same way: with the National Weather Service downgrading them to Hurricane Y2K? In this spirit, enjoy this funny blog titled: "Hurricane Sandy coverage to delay election by one week."http://www.chicagonow.com/fluffington-post/2012/10/hurricane-sandy/

ChrisSievert
ChrisSievert like.author.displayName 1 Like

@JeffBurdick  Maybe you should actually watch what's going on in NYC before opening your mouth predicted storm surge 6-11ft actual sotrm surge... almost 13 ft subways are flooded lower manhattan and battery park w/o power... I think they underestemated this storm not "overestimated" over hyped to be later downgraded! @AndrewRichards I'm so glad you are a climatologist who can prove Man has not contributed to Global greenhouse gasses for over 100 years please cite your sources sir....

bowspearer
bowspearer

@ChrisSievert @JeffBurdick Actually when 8 comments here seemingly vanished I did just that. You'll find my post further up the page citing conclusive evidence from CERN. Furthermore water is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Furthermore please cite me irrefutable evidence that the earth is a closed ecosystem (good luck with that considering that the sun is the cause of daylight.  The fact is that whatever impact we might be having on the climate is utterly negligible in comparison to the effects of external  cosmic forces we're subjected to. Like another individual here - you clearly are merely rehashing eugenics lobby propaganda (that's right; the same people who were the ideological impetus for the Holocaust were the same people who were the ideological impetus for the environmental movement - I bet that much like CERN's findings; you didn't know that either) while having done no investigative reading or critical thinking on the subject yourself.