What Makes A Perfect Storm?

There are widespread fears that Hurricane Sandy will become a “perfect storm” affecting the area between Washington DC and Boston, and some people fear that it will be as bad or worse than the “perfect storm” of 1991 immortalized in book and film. While it would be fruitless at this point to speculate on where exactly this storm will land or how much damage it will do, let us examine the ingredients that could combine to turn a garden variety hurricane into a much more serious storm, and what geography has to do with the threat and panic resulting from this particular hurricane.

Let us first note that this storm would not be nearly as threatening if it were not for its location and target. Hurricane Sandy is expected to be a minimal hurricane at best by the time it approaches New York City. In areas like Florida, a minimal hurricane would be a non-news story, because hurricanes threaten Florida just about every year, and everyone builds and prepares for the threat. The fact that hurricane season occurs in Florida before the snowbirds arrive, generally, also limits news, as our news media is overly biased towards threats to the West Coast and Bos-Ny-Wash corridor, where most news outlets are. Only major hurricanes that cause billions of dollars of damage (Katrina, Andrew) receive the sort of attention nationwide that this minimal storm is likely to receive, estimated to cause only about a billion dollars of damage–albeit damage to a “core” rather than “periphery” area of the United States. Location matters when it comes to attention paid to storms.

Let us look at the elements of this perfect storm. For one, we have a tropical cyclone, in this case, Hurricane Sandy. Another element is colder air getting mixed with the warmer tropical air. To add to this cocktail, we have a freak snow storm coming from the west that might pull cold air further east [1]. In addition, the storm is expected to arrive at the East Coast during the full moon, which will increase the storm tides still further. The addition of arctic air from north makes this an unusual storm combination that meteorologists do not know how to predict with any degree of confidence [2], since there are so few historical examples of this sort of storm (the last was in 1991). The combination of warm air and cold air, especially when one adds the effects of tides, is what makes a storm “perfect,” and could lead the storm to linger for several days in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

This makes the timing of the storm particularly significant. During the perfect storm of 1991, the storm stayed over the Northeast between October 28th and November 4th. If the storm, as predicted by many models, shows a similar tendency to stay around and cause rains and flooding and wind damage over a similar time frame, it would do so in the last week of election campaign, possibly having political effects given the threat of massive damage to the East Coast. What effects that damage would have given the possibility of massive power outages and the need to evacuate vulnerable coastal regions is impossible to say in advance, but it will be worth watching in the next week.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/post/overnight-models-continue-to-advertise-blockbuster-storm-threat-from-hurricane-sandy/2012/10/25/b29d3980-1ea8-11e2-9cd5-b55c38388962_blog.html

[2] http://www.weather.com/news/weather-hurricanes/tropics-scenarios-us-threat-20121022

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to What Makes A Perfect Storm?

  1. Pingback: Be Prepared For Hurricane Sandy | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Out Of Balance | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Stormy Weather | Edge Induced Cohesion

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