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Expect More Superstorms Like Sandy, Warn Scientists

Damaging storms in the U.S. Northeast are likely to become “more frequent and more powerful.”

Hurricane Sandy as it prepared to move up the U.S. East Coast in October 2012. (NASA/NOAA)

What can an ancient stalagmite plucked from a cavern in southern Belize tell us about future weather?

Well, in the case of “Stalagmite YOK-G,” sourced from the Mayan artifact-littered interior of Yok Balum Cave, it whispers to the United States to be wary of a possible era of damaging hurricanes. That’s the word from scientists at the U.K.’s Durham University, who subjected the mineralized prong to isotopic analysis for historical traces of rainfall. Climate change is driving hurricane tracks northward, they conclude in Scientific Reports, putting them on course to strike with greater frequency and power in northeast U.S. cities like New York and Boston.

A man walks through Breezy Point, Queens, in the wake of 2012’s Sandy and an ensuing fire. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Hurricane activity in the western Caribbean soared in the mid-17th century and declined thereafter, the stalagmite analysis shows. Because historical documentation and other evidence indicates hurricanes didn’t just go away during that period in the Atlantic, the researchers believe they were simply occurring elsewhere, mainly northward. While some of this shift may be natural, they say, from 1870 onward its primary driver has been humanity’s greenhouse gases warping the atmosphere.

The implication is the U.S. might expect to see more devastating storms like Sandy, which after making landfall in New Jersey became the country’s second-costliest weather disaster, with at least 159 killed and $65 billion in damages. And in another grim prognosis, the scientists believe just because the mean hurricane track seems to be wandering north, residents farther south won’t necessarily see a reprieve. Here’s more from Durham University:

Co-author Dr. James Baldini, in Durham University’s Department of Earth Sciences, said: “Although hurricane tracks have gradually moved northwards away from the western Caribbean, rising sea surface temperatures could promote the development of cyclonic storms within the western Caribbean.

“Consequently tropical cyclone activity across the western Caribbean may remain essentially stable over the current century, which has important implications for water availability in this region.

“However, increased sea surface temperatures also provide extra energy, potentially fueling larger storms. We therefore need to prepare for the effects of more frequent landfalls of larger storms along the Northeast coast of the United States and stronger storms impacting the Caribbean.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.