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

Sandy Is a Truly Unusual Event, Worthy of Our Attention


By Anthony J. Broccoli
Guest Blogger

Legend says that Julius Caesar was warned to beware the Ides of March; perhaps those of us in the Northeast should beware the end of October. Last year we experienced an unusual early season snowstorm that dumped up to 20 inches of snow in some places, downing trees and power lines. This year, Hurricane Sandy is threatening a wide swath of the East Coast from Virginia through Maine. Sandy remains a Category 1 hurricane with top winds of 80 mph as of 8 a.m. Friday. The expected path of Sandy resembles a backward “S” as it will first swing away from the coast and then curve back toward the northwest. The key to the impacts along the East Coast will be the timing and location of this second turn, which is expected to begin late Sunday or early Monday. Most models are indicating that the storm center will reach the coast somewhere between the Delmarva Peninsula and southern New England.

Hurricane Sandy captured from a satellite as it emerged off the northern coast of Cuba.
Click on image to enlarge.
Credit: NOAA/CIMSS Satellite Blog

Sandy has already begun to expand as it loses some of its tropical characteristics, and this expansion should continue. The National Hurricane Center is currently predicting that Sandy will retain enough tropical character to still be a hurricane as it makes its approach to the coast, but the storm should be large enough that gale-force winds will cover a wide area. The exact path will determine which locations are subject to the heaviest rains and most severe coastal flooding. The latter will be a particularly serious threat in locations to the right of Sandy’s future track.

Although the primary focus of my research is to better understand the processes that are involved in changes in climate, it will be hard to focus on research as Sandy makes it way up the coast. (And that’s not just because we discovered a mysterious leak in the roof of our house a few days ago.) This is a truly unusual event that will command our attention. It will be an excellent topic for discussion in my course on climate change and extreme weather. We’ll talk about the evidence that heavy precipitation events are happening more frequently. We’ll also discuss why it can be difficult to know if a truly rare event like this one is a harbinger of climate change or just another example of the variability that is inherent in weather and climate.

One thing is certain — there will be plenty to discuss the next time our class meets. According to the schedule, that would be Tuesday afternoon, but Sandy may have other plans for us.

Anthony J. Broccoli is Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University. He is also Director for the Center for Environmental Prediction and Director for the Climate and Environmental Change Initiative as well as Chief Editor for the Journal of Climate.

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