John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The "Frankenstorm" approaches.
People have gotten mighty interested in Hurricane Sandy ever since its forecasted track moved directly over the East Coast. While it's still likely to move some more before nearing land on Monday or Tuesday, the most current "cone of probability" (see above) is allowing it to scare the pants off of New York, Boston, Washington and other coastal cities.
And actually, people who live there should be prepared for an uncomfortable week ahead.
This unusual, late-in-the-year hurricane is a slow-moving behemoth predicted to whip the eastern U.S. with a nail-studded weather 2x4. Folks are focusing on its collision course with another potent meteorological force, a cold front blowing in from the west. This interaction of warm and cold air will potentially turn this so-called "Frankenstorm" into a hybrid of hurricane and nor'easter, creating an all-powerful vortex that will spread winds over a huge area (as well as spell wet snow in the higher elevations). But don't fret this slow-waltz of the low pressures too much: A hurricane is a dang hurricane, and where this one is headed looks like very bad news.
Expect days of high-powered gusts. That means trees coming down, knocking out power. Some electric utilities are already mobilizing emergency teams to deal with expected blackouts, but as we've seen from past storms like Irene, it can take a seeming eternity for the power to come back on.
If you've got a flight scheduled for early next week, you might want to prepare for staying at home crouched over a candle-lit Monopoly board, instead. With such a whirling windfest expected, it's a crapshoot whether pilots will be flying in this miserable environment. The mayhem could stretch throughout the week. (The place to stay up-to-date on flight delays is here.)
All this wind spells trouble for anyone living near the Atlantic Ocean. A full moon next week is already raising the astronomical tides, and Sandy hovering over the ocean will drive them higher still. Meteorologist Jeff Masters at the Weather Underground thinks that wherever the hurricane lands, the accompanying storm surge could top out at 6 feet – enough to flood the Manhattan subway system if it hits Long Island. (Mayor Bloomberg is urging residents to stock up on groceries.) "These storm surge heights will be among the highest ever recorded along the affected coasts, and will have the potential to cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage," says Masters.
The storm is also pulling in a massive amount of precipitation. It's already killed more than 40 people in the Caribbean, some by rain-induced landslides. The federal Hydrometeorological Prediction Center is seeing as much as 12 inches of rain falling over the next five days:
This is great news for underwatered plants, but a less thrilling prospect for people who have flood-prone basements or, you know, want to go outside.
A lot of people are mentioning the "s" word with Sandy. With the storm mixing it up with the encroaching cold front, it is possible that places in the East will see the first snow of the season. Jason Samenow at the Capital Weather Gang thinks it's possible that 6 to 12 inches of snow could fall in the mountain regions of Maryland, West Virginia and plain old Virginia, whose governor has already declared a state of emergency.
So where is Sandy going to land? That intel will be clearer as the weather models move toward a consensus over the weekend, but anywhere from Maine down to the Carolinas could feel the anger of the storm. The latest run from Europe's ECMWF is predicting southern New Jersey. But today, the National Hurricane Center issued a disconcerting proviso against obsessing over the point of landfall. In its standard ALL CAPS updates (why does it do that?), an NHC meteorologist said: "USERS ARE REMINDED TO NOT FOCUS ON THE DETAILS OF THE TRACK FORECAST LATE IN THE PERIOD...AS SANDY IS EXPECTED TO BRING IMPACTS TO A LARGE PART OF THE U.S. EAST COAST INTO EARLY NEXT WEEK."
Perhaps the best Halloween costume this year would be Mary Poppins with a Gustbuster umbrella. Here are a couple of recent views of the approaching hurricane, first from the Suomi NPP satellite as it moved past Cuba and Jamaica yesterday:
The GOES EAST satellite managed by NOAA and NASA took this whopper of a shot today:
Even the astronauts inside the International Space Station are monitoring this vicious spinner. This footage comes from one of their recent fly-overs: