A look at weather extremes and the big-picture climate connections.

How Hurricane Sandy Can Become a ‘Frankenstorm’

By Adam Sobel
Guest Blogger

If Hurricane Sandy manages to make landfall on the East Coast of North America early next week, as the majority of the computer forecast models now have it, it probably won’t be right to call it a hurricane any more. Or even a tropical storm, even if the winds are “tropical storm strength.” To some degree, it probably will be a hybrid storm that shares characteristics of two parents: Sandy, a tropical cyclone (the broader term including hurricanes and tropical storms); and an extratropical “trough,” or upper-level low  pressure system associated with a big wiggle in the jet stream. 

Each type of storm – tropical and extratropical -- is named for the part of the world where it typically forms (“extratropical” just means “not tropical”) but the differences go deeper than that. A tropical cyclone gets its energy from the warm tropical sea surface. It will die if it goes over land, or cold water.

Forecast from the ECMWF model for this Sunday. The contours are surface pressure; colors are geopotential height on the 500 hPa pressure level, corresponding roughly to upper level pressure. The upper trough is the dip of the cooler colors southward and eastward over the eastern U.S., capturing Sandy (the bullseye in the pressure field off the Southeast U.S. coast).
Credit: Unisys Weather

An extratropical storm, on the other hand, doesn’t care as much what the temperature of the surface is beneath it, or even whether that surface is land or water. The extratropical storm gets its energy from the surface temperature contrast between the warm tropics and cold pole. The jet stream is tightly coupled to that temperature contrast. The contrast in temperatures between air masses is ultimately what drives the jet stream, and the stronger the temperature contrast, the stronger the jet stream will be.

The whole configuration of the jet stream and surface temperature contrasts is unstable; it can’t stay straight for long. It develops undulations, or wiggles, which contain high and low pressure centers. These are extratropical disturbances. The big upper-level “trough,” or southward dip in the jet stream, currently in place over the continental U.S., is a typical upper-level signature of such a disturbance.

The main thing to understand about extratropical storms is that they depend on contrasts in temperature: cold pole, warm equator, and sharp fronts in between. This makes them inherently asymmetric; something that’s only there because the temperature is different on two sides of it can’t have the same temperature all the way around. This asymmetry is evident in extratropical storm cloud patterns, which are typically comma-shaped rather than circular. Mature tropical cyclones, on the other hand, are as circularly symmetric as they can be. 

As Sandy moves northward, it will move over cooler water. If this were all that were happening, Sandy would weaken, as tropical cyclones moving toward a pole typically do. At the same time, though, Sandy will come close enough to the upper trough now over the U.S. to interact with that trough in something like the way that an extratropical surface low normally would (see image above left).

When this happens, they will form a hybrid storm system with some tropical and some extratropical properties. Some energy will still come from the ocean surface, but some will now come from the pole-to-equator temperature contrast. This new energy source will enable Sandy to maintain its intensity, or maybe even increase it. 

False-color infrared satellite image of the “perfect storm,” a tropical cyclone undergoing extratropical transition by interaction with an upper trough, on Oct. 30, 1991. Note the relatively small central circulation that still has some tropical cyclone-like appearance, and the much larger asymmetric comma-shaped cloud band to the north.
Credit: NOAA.  

This process is called “extratropical transition.” It poses a lot of problems for forecasters. In the first place, the computer models aren’t that great at predicting exactly when it will happen. So predictions of intensity are uncertain, as the tropical cyclone may weaken before transition and then strengthen afterwards.

Structure predictions are similarly uncertain; tropical cyclones have very intense winds in a very narrow eyewall region, while extratropical ones have winds that usually aren’t quite as intense at their peak, but are quite strong over a much broader region. And tropical cyclones are much more symmetric than extratropical ones.  A transitioning storm has some mixture of symmetry and asymmetry (see image above right).

Looking at the models now, it seems fairly certain that Sandy will undergo extratropical transition and wind up as a strong hybrid or extratropical storm. The models agree on that broad-brush conclusion. They do disagree on the storm’s track, and on just how intense it will be at landfall. This has to do with the details of the interaction of the tropical cyclone with the extratropical upper trough – not whether it will happen, but exactly how.

Adam Sobel is a professor at Columbia University, in Earth and Environmental Sciences and Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics. He is an atmospheric scientist who specializes in the dynamics of climate and weather, particularly in the tropics, on time scales of days to decades. He is author or co-author of more than 85 peer-reviewed articles and has received the Meisinger Award from the American Meteorological Society and the Excellence in Mentoring Award from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.

Related Content
Hurricane Sandy Aims for East Coast as a 'Frankenstorm'
Hurricane Sandy Looks More Likely to Slame Eastern U.S.
Hurricane Sandy Poses Growing Threat to East Coast
Grim Storm Scenarios Loom For Mid-Atlantic, Northeast

« Extreme Planet


By Marilyn Eccles (Sidney, Maine)
on October 26th, 2012

I haven’t watched a weather forecast on TV in almost 10 years because the forecasters seem to be right about 50 percent of the time.  When I was an active employee if my success rate had been about 50%, I dare say my career would have been over sooner rather than later.  That all being said, I can say this about the article by Professor Sobel above.  It is easy to read and understand. The explanation of how the storm is progressing and probably where it’s going to hit is reasonable.  The combination of the trough and cyclone becoming a huge deal and exactly how is a great concern to me.  I thank Professor Sobel for his time and explanation of the details we here on the east coast are likely to experience.

Reply to this comment

By Cody (Hixton, WI 54635)
on October 27th, 2012

I do say reading this and looking at the models, makes me feel so unnormal. All of the models do is tell me that one of the worst storms in a long time is going to slam the east coast with nothing but sury I does not matter wjere in strikes liand all the entire east coast is going to be affected, I am no weather genuis but I have not ssen two things of opposite nature collide ever in my life the result of this as people say “superstorm” is a bit of an understatement, this will be the storm of the century no doubt but I’m gonna call it “no buieno” witch translates to no good. I have seem storms a lot in my time as I have chased a couple of times this is the best of both worlds slamming together its not going to be pretty in anyway shape or form, I feel sorry for all the people that will be affected by this and my heart goes out to the people that will die because of this storm. Something of this maginitude cannot be ignored broadcast it on every damn tv weather network let the us know what’s happening I just found out about it today at work, the people need to know so we can help with the aftermath clean up, send in the guards what ever we need to prepair ahead of time, and then brace for the absoulte worst, thank you to whom did all the diagrams.

Reply to this comment

By Ben Heasly (04102)
on October 28th, 2012

Thanks for this overview of how “Frankenstorm” is forming.  It’s nice to have some intuition for what’s going on, besides “head for the hills”.

Reply to this comment

By Dr.Ramesh Challagundla. (ONGOLE/AP/INDIA)
on October 31st, 2012

Predicting cyclones of this nature is difficult.More over whether Predictions are just eye wash.I am not at all happy.

All the more computer simulations for this type of cyclones are extremely difficult and also predictions may suddenly change not depending on the time domain.

Global warming is one of the regions for such cyclones.Uniformly all the countries have to adopt policies to reduce the global warming.cyclones/hurricanes will hit first on the greenery part as the temperatures may have been very low and compensation of the warming will be easier.

                        Global perceptive and tropical   studies /research in that area is very much needed

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.