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Sandy Tops List of 2012 Extreme Weather & Climate Events

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No. 1  Hurricane Sandy Devastates East Coast, Alters Climate Conversation

In one night, one of the most powerful storms in U.S. history struck the East Coast, and even more powerfully, seemed to turn the national conversation to climate change.

Hurricane Sandy was the most destructive storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and one of the worst storms in recorded history to strike New York and New Jersey. The storm claimed the lives of at least 125 people in the U.S., with 43 of the fatalities occurring in New York City alone.

Coastal flooding in Mantoloking, N.J. as taken from a New Jersey Air National Guard Helicopter.
Credit: NJNG/Scott Anema.

The combination of winds, waves, and heavy precipitation knocked out power to more than 8 million households in the densely populated Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. And it caused an estimated $100 billion in damage, second in the record books behind only Katrina. Homes from coastal Rhode Island to the southern tip of New Jersey were flooded or washed away. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie described the damage done to his state as “unthinkable.”

The storm’s toll put a new spotlight on climate change, including shifting the focus more on near-term adaptation measures that could aid communities in the face of increasingly destructive extreme events. In particular, the task of girding New York City against rising sea levels was given a new sense of urgency.

And it all happened in the time it took a massive storm surge to swamp a metropolis.

At 8 p.m. EDT on October 29th, the center of Sandy, which was at that point an unusual hybrid storm with characteristics of both a tropical hurricane and a cold-season nor’easter, made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J. Sandy’s expansive wind field — measuring nearly 1,000 miles in diameter at one point, which made it the largest hurricane wind field ever recorded — pushed a towering wall of water onto the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern shoreline.

Hurricane Sandy approaches landfall in this enhanced satellite image from NOAA. 
Click to enlarge the image.

Record storm surges and waves led to flooding in lower Manhattan that left the city’s famous subway system out of service for days. It took weeks before full service was restored on all subway lines, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to be called in to assist with the task of “de-watering” the subway system. And in New Jersey, it took workers nearly two months to restore service to the PATH rail line from Manhattan to Hoboken as they pumped more than 10 million gallons of water from the tunnels.

As the ocean poured into New York City, threatening the power grid, power companies cut the electricity off in Lower Manhattan, leading to the unsettling sight of a half-lit “City That Never Sleeps.”

New York City’s major airports were closed for days, and flooding at LaGuardia Airport left flights cancelled for much of the week. Iconic Boardwalks, summer houses, and year-round communities all over the Jersey Shore were left in splinters.

The storm’s unprecedented track — it curved to the west and accelerated before hitting land — maximized the storm surge potential, since an easterly air flow struck the coast at a right angle.

The landscape in the New York City region is shaped so that storm surge is maximized when winds blow from the east or southeast, directing the incoming tide like a funnel aimed at Staten Island, Manhattan, and far northern New Jersey. In contrast, when Tropical Storm Irene struck in 2011, it took a different path, and southerly winds resulted in a far less damaging storm surge.

At The Battery in Lower Manhattan, Sandy’s 9.23-foot storm surge coincided with the time of high astronomical tide, yielding a record-shattering maximum tide level of 13.88 feet. The previous high tide record of 11.20 feet was set during the great hurricane of 1921, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other record tide levels were recorded in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

Water pours into the Hoboken PATH station, viewed via a Port Authority surveillance camera and broadcast via social media networks on Oct. 29, 2012.
Credit: kenobryan/Instagram.

Sandy was an unusually powerful storm to strike so far north and so late in the Atlantic Hurricane season.

Hurricane-force winds (74 mph or greater) were recorded as far south as North Carolina and as far north as Massachusetts, and strong winds downed trees and power lines as far west as Ohio, and whipped up the second-highest wave heights ever recorded on Lake Michigan. Parts of West Virginia were even buried under 2-3 feet of snow as cold air was drawn into the massive storm’s circulation.

The impact of Hurricane Sandy accelerated discussions about climate change adaptation efforts.

In Sandy’s wake, many local and state governments have already begun looking at how to prepare for similar storms. Of the $77 billion sought in federal aid from New York and New Jersey, $16.4 billion has been requested for new construction projects intended for adaptation.

Scientists have pointed to two climate change-related factors that may have helped make Sandy more destructive than it otherwise would have been.

First and foremost is sea level rise. During the past century, sea levels have risen by about a foot in some parts of New Jersey and New York, making any storm surge more likely to cause damage. In addition, sea surface temperatures off the East Coast were 3° to 5°F above average during the event, which helped Sandy retain its tropical characteristics as it moved north. Global sea surface temperatures have been increasing as a result of manmade global warming and other factors.

Additionally, some scientists have pointed to the role that an unusual weather pattern — characterized by a sharp dip in the jet stream over the Midwest and East Coast, and a massive dome of high-pressure over northeast Canada and Greenland — played in the event. Such a “blocking pattern” prevented Sandy from moving harmlessly out to sea, and instead forced the storm to take a sharp left — straight into New Jersey.

Some scientists think that the loss of Arctic sea ice may be leading to more frequent blocking events. This year, sea ice melted to the lowest level on record since at least the beginning of the satellite era in 1979.  

Related Content
Ongoing Coverage of Historic Hurricane Sandy
How Global Warming Made Hurricane Sandy Worse
Hurricane Sandy Paralyzes New York, New Jersey

(Read each of the Top 10 events by following the page links below)

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By Emma H. (Rockwood, Ontario, Canada)
on December 30th, 2012

If the first step to survive climate change is interest, the second is knowledge. Which makes it worth considering that the place where we gain much of our common knowledge is school.  Unfortunately for the issue of climate change, school is focused on the economy, on creating good participants in the global marketplace, as well as good consumers who measure their success by their material gains.  And who are encouraged to spend more than they earn through easy credit and resulting debt.

What would it take for Americans to demand that education contribute to creating a sustainable future? It’s not a simple or easy change from our current educational aspirations.  But it’s one that might make it possible to work together and make the profound changes that will be needed to, first of all, lessen fossil fuel use, and then live well with less of the energy and petroleum products we’re addicted to.

We can create more local economies, regain lost skills, build local renewable energy systems, build local businesses, improve batteries needed to store power from intermittent wind and solar sources, begin a transition to a less lethal kind of culture.  We need to do it ourselves because our leaders are far too swayed by powerful fossil fuel and financial industries who invest hugely in maintaining the status quo.  But every decision we make, individually and collectively, can move the future to a new place.  Every product we buy comes from a company with policies we can support or reject.  Every mile we drive generates carbon dioxide - every mile we walk or bike - or don’t travel - doesn’t.  Local food and good insulation save energy, organic food doesn’t use fossil-fuel based chemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, hericides).  Growing food and making things and playing music are highly satisfying skills that we have been educated to give up so we need to buy them “in the marketplace.”  But we could take them back. 

If we don’t begin to think more self-sufficiently, and with more awareness of the connections betwween fossil fuels and climate change, we’ll continue to see the weather become more violent, food prices rise, the cost of living soar, and “homeland security” come to mean the degree of climate stability we need. 

We were only able to become an agricultural society because of the last ten thousand years of stable climate.  If we continue to exacerbate climate change, we risk losing nothing less than the basis of civilization.  Education may be our only chance to bring about a large-scale turnaround. It can only happen if we work - hard - to make it happen.

We need to make our schools places of learning how to become a sustainable civilization.  If this is a new idea to you, do some browsing on “sustainability education.”

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