Sandy and the Winter of 2013
Now that Hurricane Sandy has done her dirty work it is time to access her legacy in the annals of weather history.
Hurricane Sandy’s 3 day onslaught of the Northeast USA is history now as the damage assessment and clean-up begin. While one can not put a price tag on the emotional damage left behind (more than 60 dead, thousands left homeless), on Wall Street the early “physical” damage is in the fifty billion dollar range (source CNBC)..
The triple risk of this hurricane was reduced to a dual threat in Sandy’s case as this ocean monster never mustered the kind of widespread inland tropical rains that typical summer hurricanes pack. In effect, there just was not enough tropically humid air for Sandy to produce inundating rains that would have flooded areas away from the ocean salt water onslaught.
In assessing Sandy’s winds, I sense the overall flavor of the storm was well under your classic summer hurricane. Some elevated wind vanes on Long Island and North Jersey did measure winds close to 90 mph in gusts, but the sustained winds which make the hurricane the most feared storm on the planet failed to reach the full 74 mile per hour threshold needed for true hurricane status (except in a few locations per the National Hurricane Center).
That is likely the main reason that while power is out well inland, the damage in cities like Philly, Washington DC and Baltimore is less than expected. Sure power is out to millions, but move away from coastal Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and New England, and the damage is manageable. Trees and power lines are down but the inland destruction is highly limited.
So what was it that made Sandy such a brut?
In effect, it was the third threat of classic hurricanes, the so called “storm surge”, that swallowed up heavily populated New Jersey and New York city shoreline communities. This has produced the “catastrophic” damage that will earn Sandy the distinction of ‘SUPERSTORM”.
The storm surge refers to the rise in ocean water level, above normal tides, caused by the spinning nature of the winds around the storm. In the case of the New Jersey and New York beaches/shoreline, those winds spun uncorrupted from ocean to land. In effect if you envision a bathtub of water, if you tilt the tub downward, all the water funnels toward the lower end of the tub. This forces a tremendous amount of water against the shoreline.
Since the winds blew from sea to land for 36 hours, the coastline took an unrelenting beating. That’s why most of the stories you are seeing on the national networks are within a few miles of the coastline. Fact is away from the coast, Sandy was not the storm of a lifetime.
I still remember talking one on one to Dr Neil Frank at Elizabethtown College back in 1987. Back then Frank was the “crew-cutted” guru of the National Hurricane Center, the first (and truth be told still best) hurricane commentator of renown. Frank told me point blank, “too many people have built homes within the storm surge’s reach. Our coastlines are sitting ducks for sea water flooding”.
Well as homeowners in Jersey and New York found out, the rules for southern hurricanes do indeed apply even to storms this far north and even in late fall. Indeed Frank's words proved prophetic.
THURSDAY NIGHT ADD ON
As for Sandy's legacy, to hear New Yorkers tell it, Sandy is the worst storm in city history. But while the winds did reach hurricane force in gusts that has happened before in tropical and non-tropical storm events. So from a pure wind perspective, Sandy is not the worst ever in NYC.
That leaves this storm to be remembered for its storm surge. With brackish water flooding the subways and boroughs like Staten Island taking on several feet of water, this is being called the highest water level in the Big Apple's history. Point well taken and accepted as gospel.
But is Sandy the storm of 100 years, 500 years, a millenium? Likely no on all 3 counts, here's why.
In just the past 20 years alone a few summer tropical systems have prompted hurricane warnings for Gotham City. Eduard in 1996 and Irene last year immediately come to mind. Both those storms were larger and more dangerous storms at their zenith.
Coming in late fall, Sandy did not have the warm sea water needed to attain major hurricance status when she reached such a far northern latitude. In other words, a major hurricane in September (say with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour instead of the sustained 60 mph Sandy generated at landfall) could would have been twice as forceful from a sheer wind velocity standpoint.
But due to a quirk in nature, when one doubles the wind speed in a storm, the power of the winds quadrulple! Can you imagine 4 times the wind damage compared to what we saw this week? And that's why I believe a late summer hurricane coming in from the east like Sandy and striking the Jersey coast south of the big Apple is a storm that would inundate a larger piece of that original community first settled and governed by Peter Stuyvesant of the Dutch West India Company back in the 1600s.
As for me, I state WITH TOTAL CONVICTION...."On a globally warmed planet, it is easy to perceive that New York will be hit by a larger hurricane in late summer during the next 100 years!"
FRIDAY NIGHT ADD ON
In the annals of weather history there are a few cases of "snow hurricanes" in New England. These occured when east coast hurricanes intercepted the first advancing cold air masses of the autumn. Historian David Ludlum recounted such storms during the Revolutionary War and Early American years in his anthology on American weather.
But to my knowledge, an Atlantic hurricane had never snowed HEAVILY in West Virginia. That makes the snows from Sandy truly historic in West Virginia and several other Appalachian states.
The changeover from heavy rain to heavy wet snow prompted a rare BLIZZARD WARNING for many mountainous communities from the National Weather Service. The combination of snow falling at the rate of 1 to 2 inches per hour and winds gusting to 40 even 50 miles per hour made for true whiteout conditions.
When the snow finally stopped falling towns like Nettie and Richwood in Nicholas County, and Davis and Elkins in Randolph County measured upwards of 3 feet of snow.
Showing how fickle our climate is, downtown Charleston measured a mere slushy coating of an inch or two at the height of the snow while the nearby Yeager airport above the city sloshed through a 10 inch snowfall smashing records (the old October record for snow was 2 inches).
The Coalfield towns of Logan, Williamson, Belfry and Pikeville like Charleston could barely accumulate snow for a few hours, while hills like Horsepen, Blair and Bolt mountains topped 10 inches.
The heavy wet nature of the snow weighed down trees and power lines cutting power to tens of thousands. The snow was so thick that it was not only a hassle to clear from roads (as the sopping mess clung to snowplow blades making them less efficient), but it caused several roofs to collapse.
When asked why such a storm of epic proportions, the scientist in me is reminded of the warning isued by global warming scientists 25 years ago; namely, "on a globally warmed planet, extremes in our climate will become more common in the 21st century".