Sunday, November 4th 2012, 12:27 PM EST
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy people with no meteorological training at all are climbing high atop media soap boxes, proclaiming that Hurricane Sandy is part of a “new normal” of extreme weather. Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program said “Since we keep seeing large scale storms — the derecho this summer, Irene, Isabel — it may be wise for transit and infrastructure planners and officials to think of these as part of a new normal,” This claim is based on the often repeated warning that the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide is causing the weather to become different than it was in the past, therefore creating a “new normal”. In other words, in the past the weather was “normal”, now because of the way we make energy, it is different and it’s our fault and we better do something about it, i.e. control the weather.
The Governor of New York and the Mayor of New York city have no training in meteorology or hurricanes but made statements implying that Sandy was the result of climate change. Governor Cuomo said “These are extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing”. He has not done his homework with respect to hurricanes. Research by Dr. Ryan Maue shows that global hurricane activity has not increased since 1978 and has declined since the early 1990s. Meteorologist Joe D’Aleo quoted Dr. William Gray, the famous hurricane forecaster from Colorado State University, who predicted the current period of increased North Atlantic Hurricanes back in the 1980s. Dr. Gray said the increase will be due to changes in the ocean warming and cooling cycle know as the AMO. Hurricanes are not new to New Jersey or New England. They have been wreaking havoc on these regions since colonial times and before.
In the media business, implying that a big storm like Sandy is part of a “new normal” is an opportunity to create doubt and uncertainty. Planting doubt and uncertainty in the minds of the audience increases fear and fear is what sells news. The idea that there is a “new normal” is scary…details at eleven.
In order to say we are experiencing a “new normal” one must first understand what “normal” really is. The only way to do that is to understand both the history of hurricanes in the North Atlantic Ocean and their behavior in relation to atmospheric wind currents that dictate their destiny. The reason hurricane Sandy struck where it did was not due to a new normal. The storm struck because it was directed there by a wind current unrelated to the hurricane. That wind current is called a negatively tilted trough.
In many respects hurricane Sandy was no different than any of the thousands of hurricanes that have threatened the United States east coast in centuries past. In any given hurricane season, from June through November, there are hurricanes that pass harmlessly off the US east coast with hardly a mention. In fact most people have no idea the storm is there. The numbers of storms varies from year to year but in almost every season there is at least one or two that pass close but harmlessly offshore. In some years a negatively tilted wind current in the atmosphere develops that changes all of that.
When you drive down a road and there is a detour, you must change the road you were on. In that case you have no choice but to go in a different direction. That’s just what happened to hurricane Sandy, it ran into an atmospheric detour. That detour was a powerful negatively tilted trough or jetstream wind current that swept down from western Canada into the southern United States. This negatively tilted jetstream changed the road Sandy was on. Sandy was trying to cruise out to sea but this jetstream grabbed the storm and drove it right into the Northeast. In the vast majority of cases over many decades neither of these two weather systems collide at the same time along the US east coast, this time they did. It is not the first time.
During the course of any year it is not unusual for these negatively tilted jetstream troughs to develop along the US east coast, in fact they are quite common. What is uncommon is that there’s a hurricane barreling along on a separate road that intersects with the trough. As they say timing is everything. In the hurricane season of 2010 there were twelve hurricanes, twice the long term average of six, but none hit the US because the wind currents steered them away. This is what happens in most years. In the late 1930s a negatively tilted jetstream and a hurricane, much more powerful than Sandy, came together. The Great New England Hurricane of September 21st 1938 was a category 3 storm that devastated much of New England with winds estimated at 120 miles per hour with gusts as high as 160! Interestingly, this largest storm to affect New England in the last 400 years, occurred with carbon dioxide levels at 309 parts per million (ppm), far less than today’s 392 ppm. Excuse me! Are you saying that a storm much larger and more destructive than hurricane Sandy struck when carbon dioxide was much lower? Yes.
Along the US eastern seaboard there have been many hurricanes in the past that have been captured by the winds and slammed into the coast. On September the 3rd 1821 a category 3 hurricane struck dead center on New York City. The hurricane’s winds drove the water into a 13 foot surge that was pushed all the way up to canal street. The Battery area sustained massive flooding and destruction. Ships were driven into the city and the Hudson and East rivers likely joined. Amazingly, all this surge and destruction took place at low tide. Hurricane Sandy produced a storm surge of 13.9 feet but at high tide which was at 8:53 pm. Significantly, in 1821 sea level in New York was at least one foot lower than it is today. If the hurricane of 1821 struck New York today the storm surge flooding would be worse than from Sandy, possibly much worse since sea level is at least a foot higher today. Oh, and by the way, in 1821 atmospheric carbon dioxide was 280 ppm., that’s 110 ppm less than today, how inconvenient.
Hurricane Sandy is a terrible tragedy for millions of people. That fact is that today, in our modern world, we enjoy the many benefits of electricity and all the other conveniences of technology. But all these amazing benefits also make us more vulnerable to the wrath of nature. Twenty five years ago, long before there was a lot of talk about global warming, Dr. William Gray predicted that a new era of destructive hurricanes was coming. Unfortunately his prediction was correct. The “new normal” is the old normal, it just comes and goes in cycles.
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