Article Title
Article Title

Change We Must Believe In

by Josh Zeisel

My first memory of a really freak storm was in 1996. A blizzard walloped New York City with about four feet of snow between January 6th and 8th. I remember this exact storm because the city did not come to plow my street days after the storm had ended. My family dug a trench out to Hollis Court Blvd. so my dad could get the Jeep out to go to work (luckily we lived in the corner house, but it was still far). Four feet, which is rare for the area, was also very high for an 11-year-old. At least it occurred in January.

As you grow up and live in one area you start to understand the weather patterns. For an 11-year-old in New York, snow and cold is normal for January. In fact it’s damn near expected between November and the end of March. Even on a sunny day, weather is a topic of conversation, but the freak storms are more memorable – the kinds of stories that are brought up years later with complete strangers.

Last week a historic storm, Hurricane Sandy, made landfall in the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). It was more devastating than Hurricane Irene, another Category 1 hurricane which hit the area last August. Irene caused New York City to shut down the subways for the first time in its 107-year history. Sandy not only shut down the subway, but flooded seven of the subway’s tunnels and took out three of the automobile tunnels as well. Sandy set an atmospheric pressure measurement of 940 mb (millibars) or 0.92 standard atmospheres, which is a record low for the 40.7 degree latitude. It is a freak storm for this area, to say the least. But where did it come from?

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Science is based on observations that are made multiple times under many scientifically controlled experiments. What this means is that there is a controlled sample where nothing is added, taken away, touched, anything. It just sits there, same as the experimental group, before undergoing some sort of change made by the scientist. Our understanding of weather changes are based on a control group of past observations. My uncle has told me that he used to play hockey on frozen ponds … in Queens. Those same ponds no longer gain even a layer of frost, let alone freeze thick enough to skate on anymore.

Weather observations have been made and recorded since the 1640s. The National Weather Service, a federal initiative, started keeping official records of the weather in 1890. However, no one needs the government or scientists to tell you that Sandy was stronger than normal for the New York area.

Specific weather patterns occur in different areas. For instance, the tornado belt in North America is aptly named because that is where most, if not all, of the tornados occur. Hurricanes happen on both our east and west coasts. Sandstorms occur in the Southwest.

Starting three years ago, it suddenly became normal for the Tri-State Area to experience tornadoes. Which is odd, as tornadoes are not supposed to happen here; the weather patterns do not line up properly. There is not enough warm, dry air coming from the south to mix with the cold, moist air coming from the north. Now every year we seem to have tornado watches and touchdowns of tornadoes in the summer months (at least the time of year lines up regularly).

In the same year as the linked video, 2010, there was a microburst, which is a very isolated, high-intensity 70+ mph sustained wind that lasts for only about 5 minutes. It ravaged the north shore of Long Island, causing power outages and other damage. It is also a very rare occurrence in this part of the country. Wind is created when high pressure air travels to low pressure air. Sometimes when low pressure cold air meets high pressure warm air and the two air masses are not swirling about they create straight winds. Sometimes it leads to a swirling effect: tornadoes.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, are quite predictable. They form in the same spots over warm tropical waters during the summer months and travel only a few different paths. When they hit land they lose energy because there is no more warm water to supply the vortex. At this point they may turn back to water or dissipate. If the storms make it up the coast they usually run into colder water, which makes them lose energy as well. Before 2011 it was very rare that Category 1 hurricanes could sustain their intensity when they reached New York State, but two storms have hit the area since.

For some reason the late season water in the mid-Atlantic did not weaken the storm. Maybe the water is still warm enough to fuel such a strong hurricane unlike in the past. It would not be proper science to just say that global warming has caused the water to stay warm. That is probably unlikely because while the average global temperature is warmer (a href="http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs_v3/" target="blank">that is a fact) this does not mean that local water temperature has risen proportionally. More likely the ocean currents have changed, forcing water from lower latitudes to flow to this area later than usual.

Global warming is a touchy subject, one that has unfortunately been put on the back burner by both presidential candidates. It is a topic the world has to worry about because everyone has an effect. There are those who are adamant that there is a human effect due to burning fossil fuels and those who believe that there is no human effect. But what we can all (and should) agree on is that things are changing and we need to do something about it before these freak storms become the norm.

Image courtesy of Randy Le'Moine Photography

 

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Josh Zeisel is a professional mechanical engineer and graduate of Boston University. His favorite meal is a chicken parm sub and an orange soda. On clear sunny days you might look up and find him flying something. Strike up a conversation with Josh at josh.zeisel[at]theinclusive.net