“Perfect Storm” Set to Occur on 21st Anniversary of Original Historic Event

Hurricane Sandy this afternoon, currently churning over the Bahamas and gradually moving northward. Image courtesy the NOAA National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS).

The odds of a potentially historic meteorological event occurring in the vicinity of the northeastern United States next week are increasing. The players on the field are as follows: Hurricane Sandy traveling northward along the east coast of the U.S., a warmer-than-average Gulf Stream, a very deep upper-level trough over the central U.S. currently bringing snow to Colorado, and unusually strong high-latitude blocking (a very negative North Atlantic Oscillation / NAO). While Hurricane Sandy is currently bringing some rain, wind, and rip currents to South Florida, Sandy has the potential to bring even bigger problems to the Northeast. An increasing number of model forecasts are now “phasing” Sandy with the mid-latitude trough, and given the amount of upper-level jet energy available in this setup, this could become a particularly powerful phasing event.

Something similar happened in late October through early November 1991. It was known as “the Perfect Storm”, resulting in 13 fatalities and caused > $200 million in damages to the northeastern U.S. and fishing and shipping interests. In the Perfect Storm, northward-moving Hurricane Grace phased with a mid-latitude trough, similar to the one over the Central U.S. today. Normally a hurricane weakens as it moves northward, as it encounters an increasingly unfavorable environment. This means greater wind shear, drier air, and lower sea surface temperatures. However, with phasing events, the tropical system merges with the mid-latitude system in such a way that baroclinic instability (arising from sharp air temperature/density gradients) and extremely divergent air at the upper-levels more than compensates for a decreasingly favorable environment for tropical systems. The Perfect Storm deepened to 972 mb, and was at its strongest while out over the open ocean (but still whipping the coast with strong winds and heavy surf):

The co-location of an anomalously deep upper-level trough (left) directly over a strong surface cyclone (right) off the coast of the Northeastern United States during the Perfect Storm: Oct 30, 1991. Image courtesy of Pennsylvania State University meteorology department.

While there is still inherent uncertainty in the forecast, especially considering we are at least 5 days away from the phase, the majority of the numerical guidance has now come into agreement that a phasing event will occur precisely on the 21st anniversary of the Perfect Storm somewhere between the mid-Atlantic states through Maine or potentially the Nova Scotia region. Most of the models now indicate even stronger jet dynamics will occur next week than occurred during for the Perfect Storm, and that today’s storm could potentially deepen to well below 960 mb or even below 950 mb. The fact that the Gulf Stream is anomalously warm for this time of year means that Sandy will weaken less as a tropical system than it otherwise would have prior to the phase. Also, a very strong blocking scenario (very negative NAO) has developed over the north Atlantic means that the cyclone will be very slow moving, and is likely to retrograde westward into the northeastern U.S. rather than continue out to sea like most recurving extratropical cyclones do. While it is too early to pin-down exact impacts from the system at this time, it is likely that portions of the coastal Northeast will experience a damaging storm surge, significant beach erosion, and a prolonged severe wind and heavy rain event. Meanwhile, interior regions of western Pennsylvania into Ohio may simultaneously be experiencing heavy snowfall. Stay tuned!

The Global Forecast System (GFS) forecast for next Tue, Oct 30, 2012. Note that the cyclone is stronger and closer to the coast than during the Perfect Storm. Image courtesy of Pennsylvania State University meteorology department.

Will Komaromi
Ph.D. Student
Meteorology & Physical Oceanography
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