Why was Sandy so nasty? Look to the North Pole, Rutgers expert tells Morris Plains audience

Climate change may have contributed to Hurricane Sandy’s fury, according to environmental experts at Rutgers University.

Sandy could not spin out to sea because of a high pressure system from the arctic circle–where the ice cap has melted to its smallest size in years, Anthony Broccoli, director of the Center for Environmental Prediction at Rutgers, told an audience in Morris Plains on Wednesday.

The ice melt warms arctic sea water, and that radiated heat “is making the jet stream wavier,” producing variations in barometric pressure like the one that stalled Sandy, he hypothesized.

It’s a theory proposed by his Rutgers colleague, Jennifer Francis, and it’s controversial.

“Is she right? The jury is out. More research is needed,” Anthony acknowledged during his 90-minute talk in the borough Community Center, site of the Great Horizons lecture series.

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Arctic ice has shrunk by about 1 million square kilometers compared with the median late-summer ice coverage between 1979 and 2000, he said.

Anthony contends that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to this accelerated meltdown. Some 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide are emitted every year, and about half of it remains in the atmosphere.  CO2 and other greenhouse gases block the sun’s energy from radiating back into space. Over the last century, the global temperature has risen by 1 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, he said.

Dr. Anthony Broccoli, director of the Rutgers Center for Environmental Prediction, points to map of melting ice cap during Morris Plains talk about Hurricane Sandy.Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Dr. Anthony Broccoli, director of the Rutgers Center for Environmental Prediction, points to map of melting ice cap during Morris Plains talk about Hurricane Sandy.Photo by Kevin Coughlin

‘TRULY UNUSUAL’

Sandy drew energy from warm tropical waters, like typical hurricanes, but as it approached the Jersey coast it got a second wind from the cold jet stream, sucking energy from a pattern that usually drives nor’easters in the North Atlantic.

The devastating results were felt over an enormous area, with up to 40 inches of snow in West Virginia and wind gusts of up to 96 mph (eastern Long Island) in our region. The brunt of the storm struck New Jersey at high tide during a full moon; at the Battery in lower Manhattan, the water level was 9 1/2 feet above normal, Anthony said.

Whether you called it a hurricane, a super-storm or something unprintable, Sandy was special.

“Sandy truly was an unusual event, something I don’t expect to see happen again in this way in my lifetime,” Anthony said. “It involved a hurricane and a very powerful change in the jet stream that would have produced a big storm on its own. Instead, Sandy moved into the perfect spot that made Sandy stronger.”

He said it’s unlikely that storms like Irene and Sandy will slam New Jersey every Halloween; the proximity of these two events probably was just “bad luck.

“Our models that are used to predict future hurricanes say they probably will increase in strength, but the number of hurricanes will either decrease or remain essentially the same,” Anthony said.

 

 

 

 



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