31 October 2012


Unless you've been living under a rock, you're aware of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy over the past several days.  From the Caribbean, Sandy veered north-northeast, paralleling the U.S. coastline until it encountered a strong high pressure system which, in conjunction with the alignment of the jet stream, forced the hurricane's path to the west.    Sandy ravaged the mid-Atlantic states ~ the DelMarVa Peninsula, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, and Connecticut.  A record storm surge sent floodwaters far inland, flooding NYC traffic tunnels and the subway system, knocking out power, and forcing the cancellation of AMTRAK trains, and many thousands of airline flights from major airports.

Here you will find a collection of 285 images of the storm's effect, courtesy of The Weather Channel.

In spite of the hyperbole being heaped upon Sandy's size and strength, as hurricanes go, the storm wasn't really monumental.  It just happened to make landfall at the most densely populated stretch of coastline on the eastern seaboard.  At least 70 million people live within a 200-mile radius of NYC.  So the effect on human lives was magnified tremendously.

In Charleston, SC, I experienced a much more powerful hurricane in September 1989 ~ Hurricane Hugo.  Hugo's tracked so precisely that the center of the hurricane's eye passed over the Charleston suburb of Mount Pleasant, where I lived.  My then-wife and I had evacuated inland, and upon our return three days later, the damage we encountered was heart-breaking.  Large beachfront houses were either demolished or carried off their foundations, coming to rest hundred of yards away.  The storm surge demolished a bridge connecting the mainland to the barrier islands, and scattered fishing and pleasure boats far inland.  Thankfully our house was spared all but superficial damage.

But here is the central difference (in my mind) between Sandy and Hugo.  Where Sandy's impact was on humans, Hugo's was on the natural world.  A huge swath of the Francis Marion National Forest was flattened, all the downed trees pointing away from the wind.  I spend the following year working for the US Forest Service, doing habitat restoration for the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker.  But that's another story.

If a storm of Hugo's compact ferocity had hit New York City, the damage could have been orders of magnitude more severe.  To give you an idea why I say that, consider the following ~

  • Sandy was a large-diameter storm, 1000 miles wide.  Hugo was perhaps half that size.
  • Sandy's winds barely qualified it as a hurricane ~ 70 mph with gusts to 90 mph.  Hugo's winds were more intense ~ 140 mph with gusts to 160 mph.
  • Sandy's storm surge never exceeded 14 feet.  Hugo's topped 20 feet.
  • The overland speed of Sandy was relatively slow, meaning that the storm had more time to dump rain as it passed, contributing to flooding.  Hugo's overland speed was faster, meaning that while it, too, caused flooding, the wind damage was significantly more severe.
So while residents in the region up- and down-coast from New York City have bragging rights for many billions of dollars of damage from high winds and flooding, and the interruption of millions of human lives, their plight might have been much worse if Sandy had resembled Hugo.  I am in no way being flip when I suggest that New Yorkers got off easier than they might think.  If Sandy had been Hugo, the width of the hurricane's path would have been narrower, but the intensity of the damage done would have been correspondingly greater.

Having survived without electricity for several weeks after Hugo, and having helped with the clean-up, I'm confident that the people of PA, NJ, and NY will rebound, especially with the assistance of repair crews from all across the nation.  Some subway trains are already running, several of the major airports are already back in scaled-down service, and power will be restored quickly, precisely because so many people are affected.  

Taking a longer view, climatologists have long warned us that one effect of global warming is more frequent, more severe tropical storms.  There's one factor which may intensify this trend even further ~ the melting of the polar ice caps.  Global weather is a complex, interwoven web of events ~ some atmospheric, some oceanic, some terrestrial.  Here is one writer for Scientific American who proposes a direct link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy. And here is another writer on video, proposing that we must view Sandy as a wake-up call.  

These views and voices are not new to me.  In the 1980s as I pursued my degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, many scientists and scholars were issuing warnings about incipient global warming due to greenhouse gases, about the degradation of wild habitat and the extinction of many species, and about the deleterious effects of human overpopulation.  Guess what, folks ~ the future is here.

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