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Hurricane Sandy asks when did weather become exceptional? (plus important info about US hurricanes)

28 October 2012

Summary: When did normal weather become exceptional? Hurricane Sandy tells us much about our climate, weather — and ourselves. The truth is out there, if only we wished to see it. If you find this useful, please pass it on to others!

Nothing “historic” in these numbers.

Click here to get the most current report.  Click here to see the forecasted path.

Contents

  1. Hysteria about Hurricane Sandy
  2. The problem with hurricanes is us
  3. Are they becoming more frequent, more extreme?
  4. What if Sandy hit New York City?  NYC’s history tells the tale (plus more info about hurricanes)
  5. For More Information about Sandy, hurricanes, and us

Also see updates and additional information in the comments, including a video of the 1938 superstorm that hit NYC.

(1)  Two of the many instances of hysteria about Hurricane Sandy

(a) AP, 27 October 2012 (for comparison, see section 4 for details about the 1893 hurricane that hit NYC):

“New York City began precautions for an ominous but still uncertain forecast. … Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground, said this could be as big, perhaps bigger, than the worst East Coast storm on record, a 1938 New England hurricane that is sometimes known as the Long Island Express, which killed nearly 800 people.

(b) Northeast in crosshairs of possible ‘superstorm’ Sandy“, CNN, 27 October 2012 — My favorite Sandy-hysteria (we don’t have East coast storm data for 500 years, back to Columbus):

Computer models predict Delaware, Maryland and Virginia could see up to a foot of rain, according to the CNN Weather Unit. Isolated spots could see the worst rains in 500 years.

… Sandy presents a scenario not unlike the one that led to 1991′s “Perfect Storm,” when moisture flung north by Hurricane Grace combined with a high pressure system and a cold front to produce a tempest in the north Atlantic over Halloween. But Grace never made landfall.

(2)  The problem with hurricanes is us

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Sandy could have severe effects, as described by the forecasts of the National Weather Service’s Public Advisory and forecast of their Hydrometeorological Prediction Center.

Some sound news: “5 reasons why Sandy is expected to be a superstorm“, AP, 27 October 2012:

  1. Northbound hurricane
  2. Early winter storm
  3. Arctic air from the North
  4. High tides could worsen flooding
  5. Combo of snow, wind increases risk for widespread power outages

None of these factors is “historic” or even unusual by themselves (see this WaPo article for more technical details).  The combination is unusual, but certain to happen repeatedly over time.  (Update: in the comments is ICAT’s model estimates of potential damage from Hurricane Sandy based on past hurricanes.)

The AP — and most news stories about Sandy — do not mention the key factor that might cause large property losses: during the past 0 years we’ve built massive urban complexes with inadequate attention to normal weather effects.  Some of this development is mad — such as construction in floodplains and barrier islands (much of which occurs only due to the subsidies of the Federal Flood Insurance program and disaster relief programs).  New Orleans — near the ocean, in a major storm area, and below sea level.

The result is increasing property damage and disruption of vital infrastructure — although less loss of life, as our infrastructure improves in quality and resilience.

The news media reflect the structure of our society.  Their biases combine to happy commercial effect:  chronic disasterphilia, love of the “extreme climate” narrative, and reluctance to blame our corporate rulers.

The missing words from almost every news story: “this during this current period of record low global hurricane activity”.  See the next section for details.

(3)  Are hurricanes becoming more frequent, more extreme?

We’re in a period of low activity, although you’d not learn that from the US news media.

(a) Tropical cyclones and climate change“, Thomas R. Knutson et al, Nature Geoscience, March 2010 — Ungated copy here. Similar conclusions to the following two.

(b) Recent historically low global tropical cyclone activity“, Ryan N. Maue, Geophysical Research Letters, 20 July 2011 — Conclusion (references omitted; red emphasis added):

It is still a fundamental research question as to what are the atmosphere and ocean mechanisms responsible for the observed annual global TC frequency of ∼87 storms. With the upcoming IPCC AR5 assessment and associated CMIP5 climate simulations, it is critical to have the best possible diagnosis of periods of global TC inactivity and incorporate the recent pentad of historical lows into the context of natural and anthropogenically forced climate variability. Furthermore, research must better explain the role of tropical cyclones in the climate system especially during this current period of record inactivity.

Global tropical cyclone Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE units 104 knots2), annual totals from 1970–2011.

Global tropical cyclone frequency, monthly from 1970–2011: 12‐month running sums including all TCs (top time series), and only hurricane force TCs (bottom time series).

(c) Historical global tropical cyclone landfalls“, Jessica Weinkle, Ryan Maue and Roger Pielke Jr, Journal of Climate, in press — Conclusion (references omitted):

From currently available historical tropical cyclone (TC) records, we constructed a long-period global hurricane landfall dataset using a consistent methodology. We have identified considerable interannual variability in the frequency of global hurricane landfalls, but within the resolution of the available data, our evidence does not support the presence of significant long-period global or individual basin linear trends for minor, major, or total hurricanes within the period(s) covered by the available quality data. Therefore, our long-period analysis does not support claims that increasing TC landfall frequency or landfall intensity has contributed to concomitantly increasing economic losses. Due to documented multidecadal variations in TC frequency and intensity on global and basin scales, our findings strongly support the usage of long-period historical landfall datasets for trend analysis.

While there is continued uncertainty surrounding future changes in climate, current projections of TC frequency or intensity change may not yield an anthropogenic signal in economic loss data for many decades or even centuries. Thus, our quantitative analysis of global hurricane landfalls is consistent with previous research focused on normalized losses associated with hurricanes that have found no trends once data is properly adjusted for societal factors.

Weinkle, J., R. N. Maue, R. Pielke Jr. (2012)

(4)  What if Sandy hits NYC, plus more info about hurricanes

Despite the hysteria about Sandy being “the worst”, there have been many horrific hurricanes in US history.  Fortunately most when our population density was lower, our cities far smaller.

(a)  Sandy might resemble Hurricane Hazel of 1954. See the NWS history page; and their detailed description here. Hat tip on this to Brad Johnson at WUWT.

(b)  Sandy might hit New York City. Its history shows us what to look forward to –

The short, light version:  “16 Unsettling Facts About New York City And Hurricanes“, BuzzFeed, 25 October 2012

The details are in this excerpt from “Storm Tracker“, New York Magazine, 4 September 2005 — “A history of hurricanes in New York — including the day in 1893 that Hog Island disappeared for good.”

But our own hurricane history is more tumultuous than many New Yorkers might think. In 1821, when a major hurricane made a direct hit on Manhattan, stunned residents recorded sea levels rising as fast as thirteen feet in a single hour down where there’s now Battery Park City. Everything was flooded south of Canal Street. The storm struck at low tide, though, and, according to Queens College professor Nicholas Coch, a coastal geologist who calls himself a “forensic hurricanologist,” that’s “the only thing that saved the city.”

Then there’s Hog Island. The pig-shaped mile-long barrier island was off the southern coast of the Rockaways. After the Civil War, developers built saloons and bathhouses on it, and Hog Island became a Gilded Age version of the Hamptons. The city’s political bosses and business elite used the place as a kind of beachy annex of Tammany Hall. That all ended on the night of August 23, 1893, when a terrifying Category 2 hurricane made landfall on the swamp that is now JFK airport.

The hurricane was a major event. All six front-page columns of the August 25, 1893, New York Times were dedicated to the “unexampled fury” of the “West Indian monster.” The storm sunk dozens of boats and killed scores of sailors. In Central Park, hundreds of trees were uprooted, … a 30-foot storm surge swept across southern Brooklyn and Queens, destroying virtually every man-made structure in its path.

As for Hog Island, “it largely disappeared that night,” Coch says. “As far as I know, it is the only incidence of the removal of an entire island by a hurricane.”

Statistically, the New York area is hit by one of these monster storms every 75 years or so; “it’s just a matter of time,” says Lee. After Hog Island, the next big one came a little ahead of schedule, the “Long Island Express” of 1938, with 183-mile-per-hour winds. At the time, Long Island wasn’t a densely populated suburban sprawl. The same hurricane today would cause incredible havoc. Hurricane Carol, a Category 3 storm that hit eastern Long Island and came ashore in Connecticut in 1954, mostly missed the city (even as it inundated downtown Providence, Rhode Island, under twelve feet of water).

Were another Long Island Express to barrel in, AIR Worldwide Corporation, an insurance-industry analyst, estimates $11.6 billion in New York losses alone. On AIR’s list of “the top ten worst places for an extreme hurricane to strike,” New York City is No. 2, behind only Miami. New Orleans is ranked fifth.

(c)  The history of hurricanes hitting the US:

(5)  FM posts about climate change

  1. How warm is the Earth? How do we measure it?, 28 January 2009
  2. Aerosols (pollutants, like soot) as a driver of climate change, 8 May 2009
  3. Might the current eruptions in Iceland become worse, affecting Europe – and perhaps our climate?, 19 May 2010
  4. About the increasing number of hurricanes, 31 May 2010
  5. Death of the seas from CO2 acidification, 4 September 2010
  6. How good are our global senses, watching our changing world?, 15 October 2010
  7. Looking into the past for guidance about warnings of future climate apocalypses, 17 October 2010
  8. Watching decadal swings in global climate (pretending to be anthropogenic global warming), 17 March 2011
  9. What we know about our past climate, and its causes, 2 February 2012
  10. Still good news: global temperatures remain stable, at least for now., 14 October 2012
  11. When did we start global warming? See the surprising answer (it’s not what you’ve been told)., 18 October 2012

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From a 1970 poster made for the first Earth Day by Walt Kelly.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. pecanpaj permalink
    28 October 2012 3:27 pm

    A related and fun clip on Natural Disasters by George Carlin:
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    Like

  2. ICAT's model estimates potential damage from Hurricane Sandy based on past hurricanes permalink
    28 October 2012 5:23 pm

    Atlantic Storm Information about Hurricane Sandy, Kevin Sharp, ICAT, 26 October 2012 — ICAT offers a variety of specialized programs that provide property insurance coverage in catastrophe exposed regions of the United States. Excerpt

    ICAT Damage Estimator Analysis

    The ICAT Damage Estimator can be used to obtain statistics regarding historic storms that have followed similar paths to Hurricane Sandy’s current forecast path. For this analysis, the Active Storms search feature was used to select all historic storms that have made landfall within the current range of computer model forecasts. This range includes the coastline from near the MD/VA border on the DelMarVa Peninsula to the eastern edge of Long Island, NY.

    The ICAT Damage Estimator shows that there have been 7 damaging tropical cyclones that have made landfall along this segment of coastline since 1900. The tool shows the storm parameters, the damage at the time of landfall, and the estimated damage if the storms were to make landfall in 2012. The 2012 damage estimations are made by “normalizing” the data by adjusting for population change, inflation, and change in wealth per capita.

    The most damaging storm to make landfall within the current range of computer model forecasts was the New England hurricane of 1938, which would cause an estimated ~$47B in damage today. However, this storm was a category 3 hurricane when it made landfall, while Sandy is only expected to have category 1 force winds.

    Of the 7 storms selected, only two made landfall as category 1 hurricanes.

    • Hurricane Agnes of 1972 made landfall with 85 mph sustained winds near New York City and would cause an estimated $19B in damage today. Agnes initially made landfall over the FL Panhandle, then moved NE and emerged off the NC coast. As it approached New England, the storm strengthened as it underwent extratropical transition, which is also expected to occur with Hurricane Sandy. Hurricane Agnes’s impacts were felt across a very wide area of the Northeast.
    • Hurricane Belle of 1976 also had 85 mph winds, but moved much more quickly than Agnes and was weakening as it made landfall. It is estimated that Belle would cause less than $1B in damage today.

    As can be seen from the storms selected by the ICAT Damage Estimator, the sample size of category 1 hurricanes making landfall along the Northeast is not very large.

    • While Agnes appears to be the most similar to Sandy, it made landfall near New York City, which explains why the damage estimates are so high.
    • Hurricane Irene of 2011 officially made landfall further south, but impacted a similar area that will be affected by Hurricane Sandy. That storm caused ~$7B in damage, but was not quite as strong as Sandy is expected to be.

    This data can be used as a benchmark to assess the range of possibilities for Sandy’s impact. The image below is output from the ICAT Damage Estimator, which shows the range of computer model forecasts and the historic storms that have made landfall within that range. Hurricane Agnes is highlighted in orange. The histogram shows normalized damage statistics for the 7 selected storms.

    Like

  3. More broken OODA loops: US Satellite Plans Falter, Imperiling Data on Storms, NYT permalink
    28 October 2012 6:10 pm

    Everywhere we look in America, we see broken OODA loops! We’re losing our abililty to exercise the basic aspects of government necessary to survive in this complex world. Here’s today’s example…

    US Satellite Plans Falter, Imperiling Data on Storms“, New York Times, 26 October 2012

    Excerpt:

    The United States is facing a year or more without crucial satellites that provide invaluable data for predicting storm tracks, a result of years of mismanagement, lack of financing and delays in launching replacements, according to several recent official reviews.

    The looming gap in satellite coverage, which some experts view as almost certain within the next few years, could result in shaky forecasts about storms like Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the East Coast early next week. The endangered satellites fly pole-to-pole orbits and cross the Equator in the afternoon, scanning the entire planet one strip at a time. Along with orbiters on other timetables, they are among the most effective tools used to pin down the paths of major storms about five days ahead.

    All this week, forecasters have been relying on such satellites for almost all the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: hit the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

    … Experts have grown increasingly alarmed in the past two years because the existing polar satellites are nearing or beyond their life expectancies, and the launch of the next replacement, known as J.P.S.S.-1, has slipped to 2017, probably too late to avoid a coverage gap of at least a year. Prodded by lawmakers and auditors, the satellite program’s managers are just beginning to think through alternatives when the gap occurs, but these are unlikely to avoid it.

    This summer, three independent reviews of the $13 billion program — by the Commerce Department’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office, and a team of outside experts — each questioned the cost estimates for the program, criticized managers for not pinning down the designs and called for urgent remedies. The project is run by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, and NASA. The outside review team, led by A. Thomas Young, an aerospace industry leader, called the management of the program “dysfunctional.”

    In response, top Commerce and NOAA officials on Sept. 18 ordered what they called an urgent restructuring — just the latest overhaul of the troubled program. They streamlined the management, said they would fill major vacancies quickly and demanded immediate reports on how the agency planned to cope with the gap. They have moved quickly to nail down the specific designs of the J.P.S.S.-1’s components, many of them already partly built. And they promised to quickly complete a new independent cost estimate to verify the program’s budget.

    Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director, said in a statement that the agency’s top priority was to provide timely, accurate forecasts to protect the public, and that it would continue to develop and update plans to cover any potential gap. The under secretary of commerce responsible for NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, issued the memorandum ordering the changes. In it, she wrote that the administration had been trying all along to fix “this dysfunctional program that had become a national embarrassment due to chronic management problems.”

    “It is a long, sad history,” said Dennis Hartmann, the chairman of a broad review of earth-observing satellite programs released in May by the National Research Council. The report projected a dismal decline in what has been a crown jewel of modern earth and atmospheric science. The Joint Polar Satellite System also includes important sensors for studying the global climate, and these too are at risk. But its main satellites are most notable because they put instruments to sense atmospheric moisture, temperature and the like into what is known as the “polar p.m.” orbit, a passage from lower altitude that provides sharp and frequent images of global weather patterns. (Other satellites stare continuously at one part of the globe from farther off, for short-term forecasting.)

    Polar satellites provide 84% of the data used in the main American computer model tracking Hurricane Sandy. For years, as the accuracy of this kind of forecasting has steadily improved, NOAA’s p.m. polar satellites have been a crucial factor, like the center on a basketball team. But all the while, despite many warnings, the coverage gap has grown ever more likely. The department told Congress this summer that it could not come up with any way to launch J.P.S.S.-1 any sooner. Kathryn D. Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce, said it would “endeavor to maintain the launch date as much as practicable.”

    The Government Accountability Office, which views a gap as “almost certain,” has been urging NOAA to come up with alternatives, like leaning on other commercial, military or government satellites for helpful data. But it said it would take a long time and more money to get any such jury-rigged system running. For now, the agency is running on a stopgap bill that allows it to redirect money from other projects to the polar satellites. In approving it, Congress demanded a plan by next week showing how NOAA intended to stay on schedule and within a strict limit — about $900 million a year.

    … The program’s problems began a decade ago with an effort to merge military and civilian weather satellites into a single project. After its cost doubled and its schedule slipped five years, that project was sundered by the Obama administration.

    As its existing satellites aged and the delays mounted, NOAA finally put a new model named Suomi into orbit a year ago that now helps bridge the gap until the next launchings, in 2017 and in 2022 — two and four years late, respectively. But there are lingering concerns that technical glitches have shortened Suomi’s useful lifetime, perhaps to just three years. Predicting a satellite’s lifetime is like trying to guess when a light bulb will go out. The most likely timing of a gap in coverage is between 2016 and 2018, according to the best official estimates.

    That would “threaten life and property,” the independent review team warned.

    Like

  4. Burke G Sheppard permalink
    28 October 2012 7:39 pm

    Maybe part of the problem is that people have invested a lot of money in weather reporting, and they need to make it sound important for the purpose of advertising puffery. I remember the local eyewitness action center news weather center or whatever they called it some years back running an ad for their weather report calling it “your first line of defense”. NORAD watching for Russian bombers during the Cubam Missile Crisis was entitled to that sort of dramatic claim, but not the local weather guy. Or girl, I don’t remember which it was at the time.

    Or maybe we just have an inherent ingrained need to worry, even though compared to our caveman ancestors we’re pretty secure.

    Like

    • 28 October 2012 7:44 pm

      Sheppard goes to the heart of a serious problem. We are dependent on scientists (broadly defined to include engineers and technicans) to warn us of natural disasters — esp those which can damage cities, destroy cities, or even wipe away our civilization. Unfortunately (in one sense) these are rare. How do they justify their existance during the long wait? It takes great professional self-discipline to resist the tendency towards threat inflation and over-dramatization.

      But that kind of organizational (ie, group or collective) self-discipline is an ability we seem to have lost.

      Like

    • Leper permalink
      28 October 2012 9:54 pm

      Even in the cases where the scientists attempt to accurately inform the public of the potential risks, the media will misrepresent the story, given their lack of expertise in the relevant area and lack of general scientific knowledge. Combine it with the media’s desire to grab eyeballs and stories that were “Something bad might happen, but probably won’t” become “Something bad could happen, what they don’t want you to know”.

      Like

    • 28 October 2012 9:59 pm

      I agree! But the news media has always been notorious — probably worse than today’s — in this respect. But my impression (which could be wrong) is that in the past there was more professional discipline by scientists (broadly defined) than today. Now we have scientists making outlandish statements — far outside anything defensible with the literature — in front of the TV cameras. Attention-whores, who displace more sober (less exciting) experts.

      Like

  5. Video of the 1938 hurricane that ravaged New England permalink
    29 October 2012 3:14 pm

    From ” The last ‘Frankenstorm’: Video of the 1938 nor’easter that ravaged New England“, This Week, 29 October 2012 — “Historic footage of a deadly storm offers clues about what to expect from Hurricane Sandy”

    … And as millions of Americans across the East Coast hunker down, some are turning to history as a guide. In 1938, for instance, a category 3 hurricane left 600 people dead in New England. During that ferocious hurricane, also known as the Yankee Clipper and the Long Island Express, the Empire State Building reportedly swayed with wind gusts, and 60 people in New York City alone were killed, says Oren Yaniv at the New York Daily News.

    Unlike Sandy, 1938′s powerful storm came “without warning,” says History.com, and “was born out a tropical cyclone that developed in the eastern Atlantic.” The hurricane was expected to make landfall in Florida, but at the last minute it changed course, barreling north at more than 60 mph and gaining strength over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. It caught New England, and especially New York’s Long Island, completely off guard, and amounted to “the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.”

    In this strangely compelling historic video of the storm, winds whip New York City residents braving the streets, power lines throughout New England lean and dangle precariously, and flood waters crash into seaside homes, engulfing what looks like a trolley in one of the region’s cities. Check it out:

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  6. 30 October 2012 2:20 pm

    No stiff upper lips in the US news media. Coverage of Sandy is hysteria on stilts. “NYC subways are flooded!” It’s a “reverse Titanic” as the water “covers everything”.

    Like after Katrina (which was in fact horrific), we’ll probably find the damage repaired far faster than the news hounds led us to expect.

    I was in the San Francisco Bay Area for a conference during the the Loma Prieta earthquake, and an hour afterwards drove near the epicenter while listening to the radio. Little damage could be seen. But on the radio! My favorite was one reporters prediction that soon the starving hordes would be moving across the Bay area like locusts in search of food.

    The coverage was hysterical (in both senses, to us). Afterwards these journalists gave themselves awards for their coverage.

    Like

  7. 30 October 2012 3:03 pm

    No matter what the science, activists use Hurrican Sandy as propaganda. They just “know” it was caused by global warming, and don’t care what scientists say.

    There are many articles like this, and after the storm dies down there probably will be a flood of similar ones: “A ‘Fossil-Fueled Storm’ Calls for an Immediate Crash Course on Climate Change“, by Matt Stoller, Naked Capitalism, 30 October 2012

    Like

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