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Hurricane Researcher Brian McNoldy on the Science Behind Sandy

The following interview is featured in Outside Online in a series of interviews about Hurricane Sandy. To read the interview in full, click here.


A video showing Sandy’s life from October 23 to October 31: As Hurricane Sandy moved up the East Coast, a ridge of high pressure north of New Foundland blocked her from moving north and generated clockwise winds that pushed her into the East Coast, where she morphed with a cold front that had been moving east across the Eastern U.S. “The big picture of what made Sandy move north and then curve back northwest was really not having anywhere else to go,” says Brian McNoldy.

It was as a nine-year-old kid in Reading, Pennsylvania, that University of Miami scientist Brian McNoldy developed a fascination with hurricanes. “I think most of us have a storm,” he says. “Mine was Hurricane Gloria, in 1985.”

TV newscasters warned about the impending winds and rain. Local officials cancelled school for a few days. When the storm hit, it knocked out power. McNoldy went outside. “I can still remember how strong the winds were,” he says. “We didn’t get hit by the eyewall—just by the rainbands, but even that was pretty impressive.”

After earning undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy at Lycoming College, a graduate degree in atmospheric science at Colorado State University, and picking up research experience at Colorado State University, he landed at the University of Miami in January of 2012. “This is an up-and-coming school in hurricane research, and there’s a lot of momentum going here,” he says. “I’m happy to have the opportunity to be part of it.”

For his job, he works on something called “vortex initialization code” for a joint project with the Navy. It’s a series of sophisticated computer programs that allow scientists to take a crudely-represented hurricane out of a model analysis, replace it with a more realistic hurricane that has tuneable factors (such as intensity, size of the storm, etc.), and see how changes affect the forecast.

When he’s not working on the vortex code, he writes about hurricanes. “I started what, at the time, wasn’t called a blog, because they weren’t really there yet, in 1996,” he says. “For any storm—not even a storm, for any wave in the Atlantic, I would have my little list of people who were interested in what was going on, and I would send updates to them during hurricane season. I’ve been doing that for 16 years now.”

His audience has grown. From 2007 to 2010, he was invited to blog about hurricanes for The New York Times. In 2012, he started blogging for the Washington Post and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. On October 22, when Sandy was still Tropical Depression 18, he was one of the first to report on the likelihood of it turning into the Northeast U.S. with possibly devastating consequences. We caught up with him to learn a bit more about the science behind Sandy.

When did you start watching Sandy?
I think some of the models were picking up on something forming in the Western Caribbean probably by about October 12 or 13. Some models picked up, run after run, something that would form in the Western Caribbean, and then would move north toward Cuba. That persisted and they ended up being right. The National Hurricane Center issued the first advisory on Tropical Depression 18 on October 22, then upgraded it to Tropical Storm Sandy later the same day. It eventually headed north over Jamaica and Cuba. I thought, Wow, that’s extremely impressive for those models.
[Editor’s Note: Models are computer programs used to help forecast the formation and movement of tropical storms and hurricanes.]

On October 22, you blogged that there was a possibility it could hit the East Coast. How did you know that?
There are a few rather reliable global models. They’re models that run all the time, all year long, so they don’t focus on any one storm. They run for the entire globe, not just for North America. There are two types of runs these models can be configured to do. One is called a deterministic run and that’s where you get one forecast scenario. Then the other mode, and I think this is much more useful, especially at longer ranges where things become much more uncertain, is ensemble—where 20 or 40 or 50 runs can be done. They are not run at as high of a resolution as the deterministic run, otherwise it would take forever, but it’s still incredibly helpful to look at 20 runs.

Because you have variation? Do the ensemble runs include different winds, currents, and temperatures?
You can tweak all sorts of things to initialize the various ensemble members: the initial conditions, the inner-workings of the model itself, etc. The idea is to account for observational error, model error, and other sources of uncertainty. So you come up with 20-plus different ways to initialize the model and then let it run out in time. And then, given the very realistic spread of options, 15 of those ensemble members all recurve the storm back to the west when it reaches the East coast, and only five of them take it northeast. That certainly has some information content. And then, one run after the next, you can watch those. If all of the ensemble members start taking the same track, it doesn’t necessarily make them right, but it does mean it’s more likely to be right. You have much more confidence forecasting a track if the model guidance is in in good agreement. If it’s a 50/50 split, that’s a tough call.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

Do you have any questions for Brian about Sandy or other Hurricanes? Leave them in the comments section below.

Joe Spring
Outside Magazine
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeSpring

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Potential Big Storm For Northeast U.S. Next Week

Just eight days after Sandy’s historic landfall near Atlantic City flooded hundreds of miles of coastline, and left nearly 8 million people without power, the Northeast U.S. could be in for another dose of Nature’s fury by the middle of next week.

Weather models are in agreement on a significant storm shaping up early in the week, then heading northeast along the coast and into New England. Unlike Sandy, this storm won’t have a name or tropical origins, but rather, fit the typical Nor’easter mold.

Two model’s depiction of the surface winds next Wednesday afternoon. The approximate track of the Low pressure from the Carolinas to its position on Wednesday is overlaid.

This storm will almost certainly *NOT* bring the same level of disastrous impacts to the region, but could easily bring unwelcome heavy rain and snow, strong winds, and of course, storm surge and coastal flooding from North Carolina all the way up to Maine -including New Jersey and New York. People in these areas are no strangers to potent Nor’easters, but they usually don’t have to face one immediately after a hurricane.

I will continue to monitor the long-range models for changes, but when the leading ones agree on something just five days away, it is a good sign that they’re onto something.

Brian McNoldy
Senior Research Associate
& Author of Tropical Atlantic Update
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BMcNoldy

The Billfish Foundation: How Anglers Can Help With Marine Conservation

There is a new buzz word going around the scientific community that is changing the way we view our roles in helping to better manage our precious resources. I am referring to the term ‘citizen scientist’ which allows anyone to take an active role in aiding scientists in the collection of important information which otherwise would not be possible. Though this concept has recently been becoming more popular, organizations like The Billfish Foundation (TBF) have been conducting such a program for more than 20 years through its tag and release program. Anglers taking participating in the tagging program have helped to provide critical information that is essential to TBF’s goal of conserving these amazing species like marlin, swordfish and sailfish for generations to come.

So why is this such a big deal? Since encountering these species is rare, TBF established the Tagging Program in 1990. TBF is proud to now hold the largest private billfish tagging database (close to 200,000 tag and release reports) because of efforts from the recreational community. Being dependent on the efforts of citizen scientist in the form of recreational anglers shows that anglers really care about the resources they are so passionate about and are willing to give back. It is through the information collected from our tagging program that provides the governing bodies with crucial information such as growth rates, longevity, migratory patterns, habitat utilization, and for stock assessment of billfish. Anyone can participate since the tags are inexpensive and effective; they just need to purchase tagging equipment from their local tackle shop or TBF’s website. A full kit of tagging equipment (tags, tag cards, tag bag, tag stick and applicator) costs about $75. The low cost and the ease of reporting the data (via mail or online) allows TBF’s traditional tagging program to annually receive over 10,000 tag and release records worldwide.

TBF’s Tag and Release Program receives about 100 recaptured tagged billfish reports a year and is proud to have some of the highest recapture rates because of the cooperation of the recreational community. One of the most exciting aspects of the program is when a recapture of a tagged billfish is reported and seeing what secrets it has to reveal. For even those who study these amazing creatures it is still astonishing to learn of some of the amazing feats they are capable of. For instance, this year a swordfish was recaptured more than 2500 miles from where it was tagged in matter of only 7 months and a white marlin that was recaptured after being abroad for more than 14 years after being tagged!

By allowing everyone to participate in research, not only does it allow TBF to receive a large amount of data each year but the participants feel connected to “their” fish, wonder where it will end up, and who might encounter it next. While most of our recapture reports are based in the Atlantic Ocean, TBF receives reports from the Pacific and the Indian Ocean (including Japan and Australia). The global success of TBF’s Tag and Release Program has been through its evolution and creating new excitement in tagging billfish. TBF engages program participants by making the data transparent – posting recaptured tag maps on Facebook, Twitter, and on the website in addition to contacting and rewarding everyone involved in the recaptured billfish. TBF encourages more anglers to tag billfish since traditional tagging data provided still provides up to 70 percent of what is known about billfish.

If you are interested in learning more about TBF’s Tag and Release Program or would like to purchase tagging equipment, please visit us at www.billfish.org or contact us at (800) 438-8247 or tag@billfish.org.

Peter Chaibongsai
Rosenstiel School Alumnus – MAF 2007
Director of Science and Policy
The Billfish Foundation

Michael Kelly
Rosenstiel School Student & TBF Intern
Master of Professional Science: Marine Conservation
The Billfish Foundation

Just How Unprecedented Was Hurricane Sandy?

Mean sea level pressure for 0600 UTC October 29, 2012 (contoured) with standard deviations from normal (shaded). Image courtesy Pennsylvania State Meteorology Department.

The first question we ask is: just how unprecedented was Hurricane Sandy? While the Perfect Storm of 1991 is a good analogue in terms of meteorological setup, it did not have nearly the kind of impacts Sandy produced over the Mid-Atlantic states and Long Island since it developed much further out to sea. The historical record shows that there have been other hurricanes to affect the northeastern United States. Notable examples include Hurricane Donna of 1960, Hurricane Carol of 1954, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the New York Hurricane of 1893, and the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821. While these hurricanes have been classified as being fully tropical, it is difficult to know for sure about those that occurred during the pre-satellite era. Limited data we have suggests that the 1938 hurricane was perhaps an event similar to Sandy in terms of baroclinic enhancement of a tropical system. In either case, a “Sandy-like” event appears to occur no more than once every 50-100 years. Another unique and ultimately devastating attribute about Sandy is that she had the highest Integrated Kinetic Energy (IKE), a measure that combines size and strength of the wind field, of any tropical system on record with almost 4 times the IKE of Hurricane Katrina. The high IKE associated with Sandy can be primarily attributed to the storm’s incredible size. Lastly, the minimum sea level pressure field associated with Sandy was less than 9 standard deviations below normal while off the Mid-Atlantic coast, confirming that Sandy was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event.

NHC track forecast errors, courtesy NOAA.

While Sandy was both historic and disastrous for the Northeast, there was one other historic side of the story that is actually positive: the forecasts for the track of Sandy were spot-on. For perspective, 5-day National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecast track errors back in 1970 were 518 mi, which would have encompassed the entire shoreline from southern South Carolina through northeast Maine. Even in 1990, 5-day forecast errors were still 345 mi, which encompasses everything from southern North Carolina through northern Massachusetts. For Sandy, NHC forecasted a landfall near Atlantic City, NJ five days prior to actual landfall. Amazingly, the verifying landfall location was only 30 mi south of the 5-day forecast! Thanks to improved model resolution, superior data assimilation techniques, improved model physics parameterizations, and utilization of ensemble methods, NHC is now able to predict points of landfall with unprecedented skill. Additionally, because of recent advances in ensemble forecasting, it is now also possible to better convey the uncertainty in the forecast than ever before. Ensemble forecasts can now reliably depict whether the uncertainty is in the cross-track or the along-track direction, and implementation of this information into the forecast is currently underway. These advances are only possible because of improved computing power and the unwavering ambition of hard-working meteorologists and computer scientists who devote their lives to improving the models and advancing the science. While we cannot always expect a 5-day forecast to go as well as it did for Sandy, track forecast errors continue to fall year-by-year in the Atlantic. This means better advance warning for the public and emergency management, more time to make preparations and protect property, and, most importantly, fewer lives lost.

Will Komaromi
Ph.D. Student
Meteorology & Physical Oceanography
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Superstorm Sandy Managed to Live Up to the Hype

For many, Sandy certainly lived up to the seemingly impossible forecasts of impacts. For starters, it made landfall with a central pressure of 946mb – the second lowest pressure ever recorded for any storm to hit the northeastern U.S. (first place was the 1938 Great New England Hurricane at ~941mb). Maximum sustained winds were 80mph, and higher gusts were reported from Rhode Island down to North Carolina.

The center came ashore near Atlantic City, NJ around 8pm EDT last night, though its effects were of course felt far from the center. This satellite image above shows Sandy at landfall on Monday evening.

In terms of a human toll, 84 lives have been taken by the storm (as of 9am Tuesday morning) across the Caribbean, the U.S., and Canada.

At least 7.5 million people in the northeast are without power. The only silver lining there is that the temperatures after the power outages aren’t sweltering or frigid, so it’s generally not as life-threatening as it could be.

The Battery in downtown NYC ended with a peak water level of 13.88′, which is about 2’8″ higher than the previous record (set in 1821). That, of course, resulted in a total catastrophe. By around 8pm, the subways and automobile tunnels were filling with sea water. And before that, both JFK and La Guardia airports had flood water pouring across the runways and into the terminals. The flooded areas of NYC also experienced large fires, collapsed buildings, and the power company shut off electricity to the city before the flooding got too bad and damaged the equipment. The iconic fishing pier at Ocean City, MD has been completely destroyed. The streets of Wildwood, NJ became the beach as the storm surge inundated the huge beach they used to have. The Atlantic City boardwalk is now rubble and the city flooded. The full range of impacts across all of the states are too numerous to detail here, but you will undoubtedly see and read more in the news.

A buoy at the entrance to the New York Harbor recorded a peak wave height of 32.5 feet, but I’m not yet aware of what affects such large waves had on the immediate area.

As of this morning, the Potomac River reached its highest level since 1996 due to the heavy rainfall. 5-7″ of rain fell in much of Maryland, Delaware, and northern Virginia; southern New Jersey received about 7-9″, northern New Jersey saw about 2-4″, while much of southest Pennsylvania was in the 3-5″ ballpark. Meanwhile, it’s still snowing hard West Virginia and they are expecting 2-3 feet of very wet snow.

It’s not over yet either. Heavy rain is still falling over an enormous area, and storm surge and coastal flooding continues to be a very large danger. This image shows the current radar depiction of the precipitation still affecting 17 states. I also have very long radar loops covering Sandy available: click here

Sandy will certainly be a storm for the record books, and will also end up being a retired name. Going back to 1953, the only storms so late in the alphabet to be retired were Stan (2005), Wilma (2005), and Tomas (2010).

Brian McNoldy
Senior Research Associate
& Author of Tropical Atlantic Update
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BMcNoldy

Hurricane Sandy Expected to Make Historic Landfall Tonight

Hurricane Sandy continues to loom ominously off the U.S. east coast, bringing very heavy rain and tropical storm to hurricane force winds to many millions of people well before the worst arrives. The coastal flooding is already terrible, as expected (even as far south as Miami and Fort Lauderdale!). Locations from North Carolina to Maine will continue to see incredible coastal flooding/erosion, with the worst near and north of where the center crosses land (approximately southern NJ into NYC, Long Island, CT, RI, and MA). Inland flooding will also be a large problem in the coastal states as well as the inland states throughout the northeast. Finally, the 50-90mph winds that many places will experience can easily damage roofs, break tree limbs, and uproot trees, bringing power lines down with them.

At 8am EDT today, Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane with 85mph sustained winds, and a 946mb central pressure (it’s that very low pressure that creates the strong winds at the surface). The wind field is so large that tropical storm force winds (45mph+) extend 485 miles out from the center. The center is located approximately 300 miles south of NYC and 300 miles east of Norfolk – heading for a landfall late tonight near the Delaware Bay area. I have multiple long radar loops available at: click here.

Perhaps the trickiest part of this system from a warning perspective is that Sandy may not technically be a hurricane by the time it reaches the coastline later tonight. It is interacting with a cold front that is draped on the coastline and is losing some of its tropical characteristics. It actually has a warm front forming off to its east and a cold front to its south – a sign that it’s transitioning to an extratropical cyclone.

This absolutely does not make it any less dangerous! It has been intensifying (by both tropical AND extratropical mechanisms), and this interaction with the mid-latitude front is exactly what has been forecast to occur for days now. With or without a hurricane or a hurricane warning, this storm is extraordinary, unprecedented, and must be taken very seriously. The storms it has been compared to are the 1938 Great New England Hurricane, Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and the “Perfect Storm” of 1991. Sandy will join this crowd, and likely surpass some (if not all) of them in total impacts and damage.

This is truly a worst-case scenario that will cost many billions of dollars and claim hundreds of lives. Huge unthinkable storm surges along the entire northeast U.S. coast, mostly reaching their worst at night and during a full moon (already higher-than-normal tides), large rainfall amounts over several states, 2-3 FEET of wet snow in the mountains of WV, and widespread power outages for perhaps 10 million people.

If you’re in the affected areas, be aware of nearby streams/creeks/rivers that could quickly turn into white water rivers, large trees near your house, and be prepared to lose power for several days. Also, remember to check up on family and friends who might be at a higher risk than you.

Brian McNoldy
Senior Research Associate
& Author of Tropical Atlantic Update
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BMcNoldy