Superstorm Sandy turned left toward New York and New Jersey instead of right toward the Atlantic Ocean like most October hurricanes, with disastrous consequences. Now a team of scientists from Cornell and Rutgers Universities believe they know the reason why. A report by Chronicle Online explained that summer 2012’s record-breaking loss of Arctic sea loss — apparently caused by global warming — is probably to blame.
The missing Arctic sea ice allowed the Northern Hemisphere jet stream to wander, which in turn allowed the Arctic air mass to push farther south. That created a block in the western Atlantic that prevented Hurricane Sandy from moving harmlessly out to sea. Charles H. Green, director of Cornell’s Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program, and his colleagues have published their findings in this month’s issue of Oceanography.
Other observers noticed the atmospheric block at the time. During the storm, Jeff Masters at Weather Underground wrote a chilling description of what was happening:
“Think of the blocking ridge like a big truck parked over Greenland. Storms approaching from the west (like the fall low pressure system that moved across the U.S. from California to Pennsylvania last week) or from the south (Hurricane Sandy) were blocked from heading to the northeast. Caught in the equivalent of an atmospheric traffic jam, the two storms collided over the Northeast U.S., combined into one, and are now waiting for the truck parked over Greenland to move.”
The consequences of the meteorological traffic jam were severe. According to the latest numbers posted on Wikipedia, 285 people were killed along Superstorm Sandy’s path, and the “preliminary estimates” of the financial cost could be nearly $75 billion. People are still cleaning up the mess.
Could it happen again? If the researchers are right and the cause is loss of summer Arctic ice, it probably could. In a look at how global warming is opening up the once-mythical Northwest Passage, Doyle Rice for USA Today wrote, “No part of the world has seen as much dramatic warming in recent decades as has the Arctic.” He predicted that there will be ice-free shipping routes possible over the North Pole by the 2040s or 2050s.
But what’s good for global shipping may be bad for the people who live in the path of hurricanes like Superstorm Sandy.