The Science of Hurricane Sandy

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Over the past few days, the East Coast has been battered by Sandy, a storm that is already breaking records. The damage has yet to be fully tallied, but, given the extensive damage to New York City alone, will likely be in the billions.

One question many are asking is how Sandy happened.  After all, by the time it made landfall in New Jersey, the stormdidn’t even qualify as a hurricane. Throughout its trip up the coastline, the storm was only a Category One hurricane, the weakest on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which NOAA uses to rank a storm’s strength and potential for damage. For comparison, Katrina struck New Orleans as aCategory Three, and Andrew hit Miami as a Category Five.

Sandy, however, was not an ordinary Category One storm. Sandy’s unusual strength up the coast was due to a combination of factors: As it traveled north, Sandy was energized by a low-pressure stream, which carried the storm even farther; a pressure-blocking system over Greenland pushed it westward into the U.S. instead of letting it drift back into the ocean.

While Sandy was the result of several weather phenomena aligning, it is likely that we can expect more storms as the climate begins to change more quickly. Although hurricanes hit New York as early as 1821, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo perhaps put it most concisely when he remarked that larger storms appear to be a “new reality.” It’s a prime time for scientists and engineers to come forward and come together to develop systems to help us become more prepared for future storms.

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