Of Particular Significance

Sandy: Amazing. Science: Amazing.

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 10/31/2012

My neighborhood of New York City may remain without power for a few more days, but fortunately visible signs of damage are limited — none of the widespread destruction found along the immediate coast of the city and of nearby communities, where the sea rose and swallowed up land that had not seen salt water in many decades, even centuries.  Many trees are down, and countless houses and businesses are wiped out by the sea’s wrath, even entire beach communities. The numbers of lost homes are surely in the thousands, if not more, with 100 houses alone destroyed in a runaway fire in the neighborhood of Breezy Point, cut off from firefighters by the storm’s high water.

Unfortunately, many people along the coast, lulled into complacency by the fact that last year’s Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Irene was a bit less furious along the coast than was forecast, decided not to evacuate. Unfortunately indeed, because the forecast for Hurricane Sandy was worse than for Irene, and this time, there was no lucky break to make the reality of the storm significantly less severe than the worst-case prediction.  I myself know of households who decided to evacuate at the last minute and almost didn’t make it out alive, and others who rode out the storm and found themselves in considerable danger. That so many people remained in harm’s way required “first responders”, as they are termed here, mainly members of the police and fire departments, to make many rescues, quite a few of which wouldn’t have been necessary had people heeded the warnings. For risking their lives to save so many others, the first responders are widely and justifiably hailed as heroes.

Also deserving of high praise, in my view, are some of the leading politicians and other civic leaders in our region’s states and cities.  There are quite of few of them whom I don’t agree with politically and whom I personally don’t like very much, but on the whole they all seem very smart.   And in this case they understood the risks, took them seriously, and made prudent decisions to order evacuations of areas in danger and to protect public property.  They deserve a lot of credit for their non-nonsense approach.

But I feel that there’s an important story that the press is almost ignoring.  There’s another group of people, little-mentioned in the media, who probably saved more lives and property than anyone else.  I refer to the experts at the National Hurricane Center (NHC), and more generally the various branches of the National Weather Service (NWS) and its parent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

As I already suggested in my post from Monday, we should view the forecast of Hurricane Sandy’s sudden turn toward the coast of New Jersey, and its transformation from a minor category 1 hurricane into an uncategorizable (but categorical) monster, as a stunning achievement — a historic success of scientific research.  Actually it appears to be several stunning accomplishments in one: the forecast of the unusual track; the forecast of the unusual increase in strength and size; the forecast of a powerful blizzard in the mountains of West Virginia and other nearby states; and the forecast of the extremely high storm surge along Long Island, northern New Jersey and New York Harbor that would prove to be some of the most damaging elements of the storm.  These forecasts were all of highly complex and interrelated phenomena, and very challenging even for the most advanced scientific methods.

And what amazes me is that the forecasters did this successfully despite never having observed a storm of this type before.

This, of course, is how science is supposed to work, when it is at its best.  From studies of simpler examples, focusing on one or two elements at a time, scientists guess equations that allow rudimentary predictions of complex phenomena such as fluids (i.e. gasses and liquids) in general, weather more specifically and hurricanes in particular.  Over time, looking at predictions that have succeeded and others that have failed, they improve the equations, accounting for more and more of the underlying processes.  And finally the equations are good enough that they work most of the time; anyone who follows hurricane forecasting knows that the paths of hurricanes are much more reliably predicted than they were even fifteen years ago.

Yet when the day comes that an unusual combination of events arises — a hurricane moving north, a blocking air pattern to the east, a strong front to the west, an upper level disturbance moving south, etc. — and the equations respond by predicting a storm of unprecedented power on an extraordinary track, then even the bravest of scientists has to wonder: have the equations gone mad?  Have they been asked to predict the future in an extreme situation where they cannot be trusted?

I’m sure the experts were nervous about their forecast.  But as time went on and all of the different computer models, which are similar in their science but differ in their details, gave more or less the same prediction, they appeared to become more and more confident.  And they got it basically right.

Imagine, for a moment, that no one had invested over the last few decades in hurricane forecasting… that government-funded long-term research was viewed as a waste of money, and that the only funding provided was for research that was likely to lead to near-term economic benefit.  Well, none of those predictions would have been there for us last weekend.  On Monday, a breezy, raw, rainy fall morning, we all would have gone to work with no special worries… until we headed home for the evening rush hour.  And then we would have found ourselves stuck on the roads by the tens of thousands in traffic jams, unable to get home, as trees fell and rivers flooded, highways became impassable, electricity went out, subway trains were stopped by rising water, and heaven knows what else.  As the evening high tide arrived in New York and Connecticut, nine feet above normal, and as the storm’s worst rains and winds pounded the New Jersey Coast, many people would have been trapped, and the number of trains, planes, boats, buses, cars, power plants, homes and businesses that would have been unprotected against water damage would have been enormously higher than it was.

The tidal surge at the island of Manhattan’s southern tip. In blue is the expected tide in the absence of the storm, from low tide to high tide, over the time period from Sunday to Tuesday; the expected high tide was nearly 5 feet above low tide. In red is the actual tide that was measured; the peak tide was almost 14 feet above expected low tide, over five feet higher than the already unusual previous high tide, and enough to flood streets, subway stations and tunnels, and vehicle tunnels. In the green is the storm surge, the difference between the actual (red) and predicted (blue) tides; it peaks at just over  9 feet, well within the 6-to-11 foot surge predicted by the National Hurricane Center. Data from http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov.

This nightmare isn’t fiction; it’s history. Something much like it did happen in 1938, in the Long Island Express hurricane, though fortunately in a somewhat less populated area.  It didn’t happen this time, because we had many days of warning.  We were told exactly what to worry about — that there would be many hours of strong winds and rain, tremendous tree damage, flooding along the coast, feet of snow inland.  In New York City we were warned how high the high tide might be: 6 to 11 feet above normal.  (The actual storm surge was nine feet in New York Harbor, a total tide of nearly 14 feet above low water, easily enough to flood the subway and car tunnels and many streets along the waterfront.)   Thanks to these warnings, people were evacuated from danger zones, trains were moved to high ground, highways that often flood were closed, and resources that were needed for cleanup, especially for restoration of power, were brought into position to be ready as soon as the storm was over.  Just imagine the death and damage we might be reading about today, had this not happened.

All the talk in the media is about the 20 or 30 billion dollars that repairs from this storm might cost.  But even though it can’t be easily estimated, shouldn’t there be some discussion of the additional billions, perhaps tens of billions, that the National Hurricane Center saved this country in reduced damage and in reduced loss of productivity… significantly more money than was spent on the entire NOAA budget this year?  And then there are the lives saved.  Those of us who, thanks to the forecast, chose to evacuate, buy extra food and medicine, stay home from work, put off travel, keep our kids home, invite our elderly relatives to stay, and so forth ought all to send a heartfelt thank you note to the forecasters and to all the people who made those forecasts possible — everyone from the Hurricane Hunter aviators who fly into hurricanes like Sandy to collect the best possible data about these storms to the no-longer-young scientists who spent decades patiently trying to understand what makes these storms tick.  They deserve to be celebrated for what they are: heroes.

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  28. Just a quick thank you from one of those “Hurricane Hunter Aviators” (The NOAA Hurricane Hunters). Our entire budget is less than 30 million dollars for one year, inclusive of all of our flying, maintenance, etc. It certainly could be argued that our participation in ensuring the models and forecasters had the right information saved the government much more than that 30 million with just this one storm. But we understand that in times of difficult budgetary decisions, that still might not be enough.


    [Editor’s note: For this rude and insulting comment, most of which I have removed, about this country and the millions of victims of this storm, the commenter is temporarily banned from this site. Let this be a lesson.]

  30. Robust spherical nozzles rotating an outer, very balanced, drive cylindrical shaft, supported by a very strong shaft. The bearings could be ball bearings but their can also be “air” bearings, the same air being sucked in and pressurized by the nozzles.

    This periodic and cycle burst of energy can be fed into the power grid directly and/or used to charge huge capacitors or flywheels underground that can discharge slowing into the power grid.

    My prays go out to the victims and their families. NYC will recover and stronger as always … they don’t call it “the city that doesn’t sleep for nothing”.

  31. Very good article Professor. I totally agree. Science at its finest. Unfortunately, as government money is drying up more and more, long term investments in something that benefits the public will become a rare event. I see that in my country (Canada) where our backwards federal government muzzles science left and right in order to fill the pockets of their corporate masters and feed their own god complex. A very sad affair indeed. My thoughts are with the unfortunate people that got hit by this storm and lost what was dear to them.

  32. Amen, Matt! A very moving and well-deserved accolade. They should be proud of themselves–and hear that we are also!

  33. Excellent article and NWS deserves the kudos.

    There is an omission here: The private-sector meteorologists in the media who worked ’round the clock to inform their viewers and private sector weather companies like AccuWeather who worked with their business clients to insure stores were stocked with adequate storm supplies ( http://adage.com/article/news/adland-weathering-hurricane-sandy/238030/ ) and businesses pulled critical equipment and infrastructure out of harm’s way.

  34. Hi Dr. Strassler,

    No problem! I work with very similar models in my research on thunderstorm and tornado modeling, but the ones I use are specialized for very small, limited area grids, and parameterize more fine details of, e.g., the cloud and precipitation physics. But they are cut from the same basic cloth as the global forecast models.

    Both the GFS and ECMWF models are global models based on the primitive equations (i.e. the Navier-Stokes equations plus the thermodynamic energy equation and mass conservation equation), and both initialize their grids with mostly the same atmospheric data gathered from around the globe.

    One main difference between the two is the grid resolution. The GFS runs at a grid resolution of roughly 27 km in the horizontal, while the ECMWF runs at roughly 16 km (technically both don’t actually use grids, but rather spectral decomposition; the above are the effective grid spacings). All other things being equal, having a finer grid spacing will generally improve your forecast, since you can resolve more of the relevant weather features at smaller scales. This is assuming that your assumptions about the subgrid scale features are still valid when you change the grid resolution, which is a big assumption. There are other caveats, but I won’t go there.

    The other big difference between the ECMWF and the GFS, and probably the more significant one, is the method of initialization. Both use statistical variational techniques whereby weather observations are statistically optimally combined (in the least-squares sense) with a background “guess” field for the model state variables (such as temperature, moisture, wind speed and direction, etc.). The GFS takes observations centered around the given initialization time (such as 0000 UTC) and makes an analysis at a single time, using a technique known as 3DVAR. This analysis is then fed into the model grid and the forecast is launched from there. The ECMWF does a very similar thing, except that instead of utilizing an analysis at a single time, it actually uses an enhanced technique known as 4DVAR, wherein the model itself is run forward and backward in time over a certain interval (I think it’s on the order of 6 hours or so, I’d have to check), assimilating observations from within that entire window. The forecast “trajectory” is optimally corrected over several forward-backward iterations to best fit the “trajectory” of the observations within that time window. The final analysis valid at the end of that window is then used to make the subsequent forecast. Because 4DVAR makes use of a longer time window and tries to correct the model forecast trajectory, while 3DVAR merely tries to correct an initial guess valid at a single time, the former generally yields a much more accurate final analysis. The disadvantage is that 4DVAR is far more computationally expensive than 3DVAR, and one needs to create an adjoint (backward-in-time version) of the entire forecast model code, which is nothing short of a nightmare for these very complex codes.

    Both of the above contribute to generally superior forecasts by the ECMWF for most situations (in fact, I think a study was done not so long ago in which the ECMWF 4DVAR was used to initialize the GFS forecast model; the results showed a significant improvement in the GFS forecasts, nearly the same accuracy as the typical ECMWF. I’ll see if I can dig it up). The next obvious question is why the GFS doesn’t follow suit with using 4DVAR and higher resolution. The reasons are complex, but partly because (as I see it, at least) the ECMWF center only has to deal with one model, while the U.S. weather enterprise is concerned with multiple models at different scales, and thus has to spread their resources more thinly. The full GFS output is also freely available to anyone, while the ECMWF output is not. Personally, I’d like us in the U.S. to focus on a more unified weather modeling framework, while still keeping everything open access.

    Finally, what makes the modern versions of the GFS/ECMWF so much better than their predecessors is a combination of increasing model resolution, better numerical solution techniques, better physical parameterizations of clouds and precipitation, radiation, surface fluxes, and the like, and better initialization procedures (such as 4DVAR). The basic equations that the models are based on, however, have not changed much, only the solution details and how we handle the complex parameterizations of the other important physical phenomena not directly related to fluid flow.

  35. Don’t forget our gratitude in the false positives (Italy, are you listening?).

    BTW, planned drills save lives, too.

    1. Yes, the false alarm rate for severe weather warnings is a big problem, but fortunately for large and intense storms like these, the atmospheric signals that lead to them are paradoxically often easier to see in the models well ahead of time than for a more typical storm. The European model, for example, sniffed Sandy’s left turn into the NE coast and even got its central pressure and size about right, more than a week in advance. Our own (the U.S.’s) global model (the GFS) took a while longer to lock in; it was insisting on taking the storm out to sea until roughly 4-5 days lead time (if my memory serves me), but that’s still pretty good.

      1. Dan D. — you seem to be well-informed. I am curious to know what are the key differences between the European and GFS models, and what puts them above the previous ones? If you have time, and the knowledge to answer, please enlighten us.

      2. Matt S.,

        That’s a good article by Cliff Mass, but I wish he would have gone more into the fact that the U.S. is also doing short-term high resolution regional prediction (even down to thunderstorm-resolving scales), which ECMWF does not do (he only mentions this in passing). In my view, that’s at least part of the reason we have an inferior global model, because our resources are spread out more than the ECMWF. Even so, I pretty much agree with the gist of his article.

  36. A huge thankyou to all the weather services that predicted this storm. I am more than happy to pay taxes to support NOAA, and other organizations, that enabled this storm to be predicted, through immense efforts by scientists, engineers, technicians and others, working for these organizations.
    I well remember hurricane Bob that hit the south coast of New England in 1991. I was about to participate in a 3 week research cruise, studying the Gulf Stream, which had to be rescheduled, while all of us cleaned up our properties and laboratories where we worked. But the storm was predicted and we were prepared.

  37. Pour me also some coffe, I work hard with available datas. Why I expect benefit, if Iam “harmony” with nature- climate scientists could master events?.

    Iam the nature, how could I myself change the events.

  38. I agree with everything you wrote except the “despite never having observed a storm of this type before” part. Pacific typhoons come in rather wide variety of sizes and types and they are the same atmospheric phenomena despite being called differently. Study of pacific typhoons was one of invaluable inputs that made hurricane/tropical storm forecasts so successful.

    1. Kashua, yes, typhoons and hurricanes are the same phenomenon (both are tropical cyclones), but that’s not the point here. This particular storm was unusual, maybe even unique, in the sense that it rapidly intensified while transitioning from a tropical cyclone to an extratropical one, and maintained a warm inner core during this whole process, right up to just before landfall. Tropical cyclones transition to extratropical ones all the time, but this almost always results in overall weakening, not substantial strengthening like Sandy did. I’ve been watching tropical cyclones for a long time (though I’m still a young scientist), and I’ve never seen a storm quite like this one, and I’ve heard similar sentiments from my older colleagues. In other words, Dr. Strassler’s comment was pretty accurate.

      1. If you take it to details, no two collisions on LHC are the same. No two hurricanes are the same as well so every one is exceptional or unique in some way through combination of its properties. If Sandy was special or exceptional in some way, models would not be as successful in forecasting its behavior because it would reside outside of these models’ parameters. According to people who were actually doing these forecasts, “Sandy was a highly predictable storm.”. Yes, it was the biggest _atlantic_ storm system on record and it did behave differently than what are people from US used to. But that does not mean it was as exceptional or unprecedented as you’d like to see it.

        1. The analogy here is rather weak, I must say: collisions at the LHC involve profoundly different predictive requirements than do hurricanes.

          And in any case, if you want to argue that extremely powerful warm-core storms are somehow a good proxy for a hybrid hurricane/nor’easter, then that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

          Finally, my whole *point* was that it was predictable… predictable because the equations worked even though this storm was a new solution. Given that the equations that go into the models are approximate, one never *really* knows if a new solution is “predictable” until after the prediction works.

      2. Kashua,

        Of course no two tropical cyclones are the same, and yes, they all have arguably “unique” features. Again, though, I point out the rather unique features of Sandy, described above, which I have not seen before in another storm. As far as historical records are concerned, there is an excellent argument that the evolution of Sandy as described above was in fact unprecedented. Certainly, storms like Sandy have happened before in Earth’s history, but it’s the first time in our modern scientific age that we’ve been able to clearly document such a storm.

        And, it’s simply not true that the models would necessarily have a hard time predicting the storm, given the unique features. The models have a very general set of fluid dynamic equations that they solve (plus some physical parameterizations to take care of such things as radiation and cloud and precipitation physics). Clearly, the behavior of Sandy was something that falls within the range of solutions of these equations (they really are that general). What made Sandy unique was more the unique confluence of circumstances that led to those solutions, not the nature of the solution itself. Does that make sense?

      3. I’ll make one caveat regarding the “unprecedented” nature of Sandy. It’s possible that other storms have behaved similarly, even in recent history, but have escaped notice because they haven’t impacted populated areas. I’m sure if one did a dedicated search of weather analysis databases, one might be able to find reasonable facsimiles. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were synoptic (large scale) meteorologists doing that right now, and planning the papers they could write.

        1. But Dan, even in that case, wasn’t the interaction of Sandy with the landmass of the east coast important in the forecast? for instance, the snowfall forecast; and the interaction with the coastal area, needed for the storm surge. I would have thought that the same weather pattern over the ocean would have a somewhat different result… but maybe that’s naive on my part?

      4. No, you’re correct, as far as the results of the storm are concerned. The storm surge needs some landmass to pile up against in order for it to be a problem, of course. My caveat was more along the lines that storms with a similar evolution in their broad details (i.e. tropical to extratropical while intensifying) could also potentially happen over open ocean. On the other hand, the temperature contrast between the land and sea is an important energy source for coastal storms (i.e., Nor’easters) such as these, so they are more frequent near and downstream of continents in the midlatitudes. In addition the heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions on the west side of the circulation wouldn’t have occurred without the interaction with the mountainous terrain, so that’s another important influence of the landmass that probably wouldn’t have occurred in a similar situation over open ocean.

  39. “Nature Acts, Men Argue..”
    – Voltaire
    I too like this

    I do believe in basic science- I do believe.

    /But basic science, in my view, is a way that research can encourage our entire economy/- belief in speculations(mastery in numerology) spoiled the economy- replacing intuition with collective Logos.

    /the latter left this last year (“he had no power” & was unhappy)/- How we didn’t expect “collective Logos” also could copied, if profitable?- the Frankenstein’s monster.

  40. “Nature Acts, Men Argue..”
    – Voltaire

    I like this

    “1st, I must Understand. 2nd, I must Apply. 3rd, I must Explain”
    – Dr Edward Teller, “From Student to Scientist”
    [ Science Outreach program on PBS, along w/M. Gell-Mann, Burt Richter ]

    If your thesis is “this is a victory for Science”, then Romney better NOT win the election. His science ignorance is evident at


    I do believe in basic science. I believe in participating in space. I believe in analysis of new sources of energy. I believe in laboratories, looking at ways to conduct electricity with — with cold fusion, if we can come up with it. It was the University of Utah that solved that. We somehow can’t figure out how to duplicate it.

    But basic science, in my view, is a way that research can encourage our entire economy.

    Cold Fusion/U of Utah was debunked by peer-review, but he’s showing anit-intellectualism bias (since he’s Mormon..Utah connection)

    STEM is the key to Economic Recovery (fuel for business in Global Economy, which is increasingly Science/Tech centric), but he’s CLUELESS on Science. I.e., he will enact policies that are anti-Science & jeopardize America’s future.

    At least Obama hired Science experts. Like Dr Steven Chu (Stanford Physics Nobelist) as Secretary of Energy, & Dr Stephen Koonin (Caltech Physics, Provost, former Chief Scientist at BP/British Petroleum) as Undersecretary of Science at DoE. However, the latter left this last year (“he had no power” & was unhappy)

  41. Absolutely! The whole hurricane team should be regarded as heroes.
    The fate of government funded, extremely important research, such as that carried out by NOAA, will depend on the composition of the government in 2013. I hope against hope that NOAA and Big Bird are not lumped together by politicians focusing so narrowly on the deficit that they ignore everything else.

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