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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

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