Science and Hurricane Sandy

I am in Washington DC and today is a nice sunny day. This city was largely spared as Hurricane Sandy seems to have gone slightly north of here, hitting severely New Jersey and New York.

What impressed me was the accuracy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other scientists’ predictions of the hurricane’s path. It had a weird track, first heading out to the Atlantic, then taking a sharp turn westwards to hit land and then taking another sharp turn north through Pennsylvania and the northeast. As Nate Cohn says:

The models correctly anticipated an unprecedented storm with startling precision, nailing the storm’s unusual path, strength, and character well in advance. As predicted, Sandy transformed into a hybrid storm of unprecedented size and intensity, with tropical storm force winds stretching over 1,000 miles across, making it the largest tropical cyclone in the history of the Atlantic. While meteorologists often get a bad rap, they deserve credit for forecasting a historic storm well in advance.

Given the complex nature of a hurricane, the prediction of this path has to reflect a great deal of credit on the scientists who study weather and climate.

I don’t know if this hurricane is a sign of the effects of climate change or not. Individual events, however extreme and anomalous, tend not to be good indicators of long-term global trends and one has to depend on statistics. But what this predictive success should tell us is that we need to take climate scientists seriously. Those climate skeptics who sneer at the sophisticated computer models used as if they were infinitely malleable and capable of being manipulated by those with an agenda should take note.

These scientists know what they are doing.


  1. slc1 says

    The predictions of the path, size, and intensity of Sandy were greatly complicated by it’s interaction with a low pressure system coming in from the west that formed a Nor’easter.

  2. says

    Per the Skeptical Science team we can see climate-related factors.

    As far as attribution goes, I think Alpinist’s comment #5 in that post is pretty much on the ball:

    Alpinist at 12:52 PM on 1 November, 2012
    Thanks Dana, this is a nice summary. It reminds of something Aaron Lewis posted a bit ago at Tamino’s site: The composition of the atmosphere affects the weather. All of the weather, all the time. We have changed the composition of the atmosphere. We are affecting the weather, all of the weather, all the time.

  3. says

    It is interesting to note the similarity of Hurricane Sandy with the story Forty Signs of Rain, written by Kim Stanley Robinson in 2004. In that story, a perfect storm similar to what happened with Sandy hits the District of Columbia. Between nearly two feet of rain and a storm surge pushing into the Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomic River, the capital and surrounding cities flood, shutting down transportation, power, even turning the lower part of the Arlington National Cemetary into an inlet of the Bay. Government is effectively paralized.

    It is the first novel in the Science in the Capitol trilogy, which examines the likely consequences of global warming. It continues with Fifty Degrees Below (2005; several months after the flood, a record shattering snow storm hits DC) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007; a new president elected just before the snow storm takes up the issue of global warming.) Definitely worth reading.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    But what this predictive success should tell us is that we need to take climate scientists seriously.

    But, as we are constantly reminded in climate change discussion, weather != climate. So the ability to track one storm, which is weather, tells us nothing about the validity of long term climate models.
    As it happens, the science behind global warming projections is also good, but this does nothing to invalidate your fallacious thinking.

  5. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    So the ability to track one storm, which is weather, tells us nothing about the validity of long term climate models. – Reginald Selkirk

    True, but it does discredit the version of AGW denialism which just says: “Computer models, hurr hurr hurr!”

    Sandy is apparently the strongest storm ever to reach the east coast north of North Carolina.

  6. Vote for Pedro says

    Nate Silver has a whole chapter on weather prediction in his new book “The Signal and the Noise” on predictions in general. Apparently, we’ve made huge strides in predicting where a hurricane will make landfall in the last 25 or so years. Back then, the average error was 350 miles; now it’s 100. Taking Katrina as the example, that’s essentially the difference between “it will hit somewhere between Houston and Tallahassee” and “it will hit SE Louisiana.”

    Then again, the next chapter is about how we can’t predict earthquakes at all, and may never be able to (Italian court decisions notwithstanding).

  7. Mano Singham says

    I made it a point to note that a single hurricane could not be blamed on climate change. I said that the success of predicting the strange track of this hurricane tells us that these scientists’ models should be taken seriously.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    Which implies that the same software is used for tracking tomorrow’s weather and for projecting climate trends over decades. This is patently false.

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