What Is Making Frankenstorm Sandy Exceptional?

October 29th, 2012 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.

NASA MODIS image of Hurricane Sandy on 10/28/2012
As Hurricane Sandy completes it’s transformation into a strong nor’easter (“Frankenstorm Sandy“), I think it will likely break a record for the lowest barometric pressure for a “winter” cyclone in the Northeast U.S. There will also be widespread heavy rain, which almost always leads to some local record rainfall amounts depending upon just where rain bands happen to sit for an extended period of time.

But I predict it won’t break any records for wind speeds or snowfall. A few locations might see record storm surges, but again those have a lot to do with the chance superposition of wind direction, long fetch, and lunar tides.

So what has made Sandy so exceptional?

It is basically the “perfect storm” scenario of the chance timing of a tropical cyclone merging with an extra-tropical winter-type storm. Without Hurricane Sandy off the coast, the strong trough over the eastern U.S. (caused by cold Canadian air plunging southward) would have still led to a nor’easter type storm forming somewhere along the east coast of the U.S. But since Hurricane Sandy just happens to be in the right place at the right time to merge with that cyclone, we are getting a “superstorm”.

This merger of systems makes the whole cyclone larger in geographical extent than it normally would be. And this is what will make the surface pressures so low at the center of the storm.

This type of event is certainly not unprecedented, and something like it happens just about every year…just not over the Northeast U.S. These events are somewhat more common in the northwest Pacific Ocean or farther north in the Atlantic Ocean. We did an internal study of these events about ten years ago (never published) using QuikScat, AMSU, and buoy data, and it is amazing just how strong some of these hybrid winter storms can get.

So, while Frankenstorm Sandy will indeed have great local significance, it is premature to claim it has any global significance, such as a response to global warming. We would need to see more of these events occurring over many years, on a quasi-global basis…and even then the increase would need to be shown to be unrelated to natural climate modes of variability, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation or Arctic Oscillation.

30 Responses to “What Is Making Frankenstorm Sandy Exceptional?”

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  1. Espen says:

    I see that Kevin Trenberth is arguing that since AGW has contributed to the hot water in the North Atlantic, AGW is making this storm stronger than it would have been otherwise. My initial reaction to that was that “but shouldn’t AGW also have made that cold front less cold due to polar amplification?”.

  2. The path is completly related to the state of the nao/ao.

    Both being in a very negative state, non zonal, which is why sANDY , did not move west to east,but moved east to west instead.
    Another resson why the intensity is what it is ,is due to the very warm water off the east coast of the United States, which is also contributing to the persistence of the atmospheric circulation tending toward a more meridional mode.

    As I have been saying this trend is going to keep increasing due in large part to the accumulation of years of sub-solar activity, and the very low solar activity we should have going forward as this decade proceeds.
    This low solar activity ,promotes the atmosphere(upper trop/lower stratosphere) in the higher latitudes to warm ,relative to the lower latitudes ,due to ozone distribution changes.

    And this is exactly what has been the trend with the atmosphere ,going back to year 2008 or so. It is responding as expected, and is and will have profound effects on the climate of the N.H.


    Getting back to what I was saying,

    This occurance,like the the winter of 2010-2011 ,will be more common going forward, due to the atmospheric circulation trending more meridional.
    Having nothing to do with co2 and global warming but much to do with the prolong sub -solar activity years, which started back in year 2005.

  3. Kevin Trenberth, is a complete fool, when it comes to earth’s climate. I knew the garbage about AGW,as a factor for this storm , would come out. I just knew that would happpen, and I am sure this is just the start of that nonsense.

    • RW says:

      Yes, I knew it would too. Ridiculous of course, but the true believers will see it and anything like it as evidence of ‘climate change’ or whatever.

  4. lol, lol that is all I can say in response to the global warming crowd. Sometimes I come off as being to serious. I am actually amused by what the AGW people have to say, and I hope they continue, promoting all their wrong conclusions when it comes to the climate, and how it will change and why it will change. They are wrong(100% wrong ) on all counts.

  5. Jersey Mike says:

    “A few locations might see record storm surges”

    In New York City the storm surge set a new record of 13.88 feet breaking
    the 52 year old record by almost 4 feet (3.86 to be exact).

    So yeah, no big deal, Yawn, happens all the time.


  6. Chaine says:

    Dr. Spencer is again perfectly on message and I hope all the folks on our side take note. We need to stick together in such times.

    I think there will be even more press coverage of this storm because of the elections coming up, and already I have seen more than normal references to global warming contributing to the intensity of the storm. It is important to counter these arguments whenever possible to keep the scientists on the defensive. Take cues from Dr. Spencer:

    1. Downplay the significance of the storm. The easiest way is to say it isn’t as bad as the epic storm of 19whatever. Nobody will bother to check the facts, and all the old geezers in the barber shop will back you up.

    2. Downplay the significance of new records. Say that records are broken all the time all over the globe, so there is nothing unusual about new records. In the early stages when the electricity is still out, we won’t hear much about new records, so it is safe to claim that record events were rare.

    3. Emphasize that even if the storm is unusual, there is no link to man made activities. Say that the event is due to natural variability and that only if these events become more common over many decades could we even begin to consider what causes any increase.

    You might consider writing a letter to a local newspaper with these arguments to help in the fight. If you do, you can add a citation to Dr. Spencer since that adds credibility.

    Be safe out there,
    D. Chaine, Ph.D.

    • Eric H. says:

      Dr. Chaine,

      1) Do you think there would have been a “Sandy” without the increased CO2 levels attributable to humans?

      2) If you think there would have been a “Sandy” without the increase in CO2 levels how would the magnitude of this storm been different? Can you quantify the effects that increased CO2 levels had on this storm? Wind speeds? Storm surge levels? Area of storm? Land fall location?

      3) If you think “Sandy” wouldn’t have occurred without the human added CO2, can you explain why?

      Thanks, Eric

    • mike maguire says:

      Nice try Chaine.
      Reads just like a post targeting a group here that you want to rile up because of your preconceived notions.

      Not 1 iota of credible science.

      Have to agree with Salvatore on this one regarding the -AO/NAO.

      Reminds me of the blizzards of 2010…….only earlier in the season.


      In 2010 it was energetic El Nino/Southern stream systems phasing with the the northern stream(blocking at high latitudes and Arctic air flushed south on the backside of the deep Upper low beneath it.

      This one phased the northern stream from the -AO blocking with a remnant hurricane/tropical system.

      -A0 and -NAO patterns, as was seen in the Winters of 2009/10, 2010/11 are cold patterns for this part of the US in the cold weather season.


      Just another example(remember Al Gore’s damage control Op-Ed article in the NY Times that connected the 2010 blizzards being caused by global warming) of how everything, including cold and snow is caused by global warming.


      “The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm”

  7. John W. Garrett says:

    Dr. Spencer,

    Thank you for your informed and cogent commentary. Your explanation is straightforward and written in language that a 5-year old can understand.

  8. This storm was extremely bad, but it has NOTHING to do with global warming.

  9. The commentary on this sotrm from the so called climatalogist is pathetic . Especially Mr. NO NOTHING Kevin Trenberth.

  10. tckev says:

    Thank-you Dr. Spencer for a clear and understandable ‘forecast’ of the likely outcome. It is most refreshing to read your description that is obviously written with the non-specialist but thinking adult in mind.


  11. William Blent says:

    Every time a record storm or a record climate extreme occurs, they are followed by statements: One event is not evidence for climate change. True. But isn’t there any sense of having to reassess one’s position in light of the data when you realize you have said “one event…” for dozens of cases?

    • Rob says:

      Actually William, no, there is no reason to re-assess one’s position because these events are not happening any more often that they did 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago when global temperatures were lower. That is the whole point.

      What you need to do is to read something from Roger Pielke Jr where – even though no skeptic of anthropogenic global warming – he is constantly pointing out that there is no trend in extreme weather events. The only trend is in damage cost estimates which can be directly related to increased coastal development.

      Please take the time to look at real scientific data and not fall for over-exuberant reporting with regard to the weather, as the two are very far apart.

      • Doug Robertson says:


        It is you who needs to read something. Try for a start the Nature Climate Change article of March 2012. The statistics there are based on standard deviations above historical distributions and have no relation to economic damage estimates. The analysis quite clearly shows an increase in rare events in the past decade. You should then read the 86 cited works in this paper.

        R.P. Jr. is not known as a credible source for reviewing actual scientific data, and in this case has led you to a completely false conclusion. The data in many studies shows an increase in extreme weather events based on frequency estimates of many measures that one can only ignore if you cling to a dismissable truth.


  12. stephen richards says:

    ange.frEric H. says:

    October 31, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    Dr. Chaine,

    1) Do you think there would have been a “Sandy” without the increased CO2 levels attributable to humans?

    2) If you think there would have been a “Sandy” without the increase in CO2 levels how would the magnitude of this storm been different? Can you quantify the effects that increased CO2 levels had on this storm? Wind speeds? Storm surge levels? Area of storm? Land fall location?

    3) If you think “Sandy” wouldn’t have occurred without the human added CO2, can you explain why?

    ERIC your the CO˛ genius, you explain it. Incidently, while your explaining Sandy perhaps you could explain the ’38 storm as well.

  13. Eric H. says:

    I am certainly no “CO2 genius”, and I cannot explain either storm, although I do think that CO2 had little or nothing to do with it. I was taken aback by the sarcastic tone of Dr. Chaine and I thought he was quite disrespectful to Dr. Spencer. I simply asked him for some information to back up his sarcastic post, but I take it that you either misunderstood the nature of Dr. Chain’s post or my own.


  14. shirl says:

    In answer to your question “The Media” apart from that not a lot.

  15. JayKay says:

    Once upon a time new weather records of nearly every type were set every year, and it was considered to be something that simply happens in nature. Now days, no weather record can be set without it being attributed to global warming.

    The credibility of climate scientists was shattered by the exposure of the climategate emails. The quickness to which climate scientists jump to blame every unusual weather event on global warming is not going to restore their credibility.

  16. Gerald Machnee says:

    If you check the recent posts at WUWT you will quickly see that neither the hurricane nor the storm surge are “unprecedented”.
    In the 1600’s and 1700’s the surges were significantly higher while the climate was colder and the so-called CO2 was lower.

  17. Stephen Wilde says:

    Such large slow moving storms with a large north/south latitudinal extent are a feature of a cooling climate system because the additional cloudiness that they involve reduces the amount of solar energy able to enter the oceans.

    It happened previously to a slight degree during the mid 20th century cooling period and more pronouncedly during the Little Ice Age.

    The cause is an expansion of the polar air masses (negative AO and AAO) as a result of changing solar effects on ozone amounts in the stratosphere which alters the ‘normal’ gradient of the tropopause between equator and pole allowing the permanent climate zones to slide latitudinally equatorward causing global cloudiness changes.

    I have explained this in more detail elsewhere and discussed the general principles with Salvatore some time ago.

    Initially Salvatore thought that I had got the sign of the atmospheric response to solar variations wrong but in due course he saw my point.

    The fact really does seem to be that a quiet sun naturally warms the stratosphere differentially towards the poles pushing polar air masses equatorward more often.

    In contrast an active sun naturally cools the stratosphere differentially towards the poles which contracts the polar air masses reducing equatorward outbreaks.

    As Salvatore correctly points out the expanded polar air masses to the north prevented Sandy from joining the west / east zonal flow and forced it westward into the north east USA instead.

    As it happens was aboard the Queen Mary 2 last week as Sandy approached NYC and we only just got out in time.

    The previous 5 days of the voyage up to Halifax Nova Scotia was characterised by cloudless blue skies under a high pressure cell. It was clear to me even before the event that the high pressure cell would not easily give way.

  18. Thanks for the good explanation Dr. Spencer.

    NOAA National Hurricane Center – Index of Major U.S. Landfalling Hurricane Tracks, at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/data/images/tracks/
    contains decadal graphs from 1851 to 2005.

    These graphs help put major hurricane frequency in perspective. Difficult to at though, from the NHC website links.

  19. Dragontide says:

    Give it up Dr Spencer. Your little run with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the Koch Brothers (or whom ever) was a good run; but it’s over.

    C’mon Doc. Don’t act like you weren’t paying attention to water temperatures that were in in Sandy’s path. If the water temperatures would have been at, near, or below average, Sandy would not/could not have been as powerful as she was.

    NOAA’s “Global hazards” reports in 2010 reads like a Stephen King book. Among several other weather records broken in 2011 were the record tornadoes in the U.S. and this year we get record drought and Sandy.

    You embarrass yourself and the great state of Alabama almost every time you speak about climate change. Please stop.

  20. Stig Moberg says:

    UAH confirms, temperature rise is on-going and increasing. Good work Dr. Spencer!

  21. Doug Cotton says:

    This is a typical example of mistaken thinking …

    Tallbloke (Roger) said “What actually caused the warming was extra short wave from the Sun heating the ocean when the cloud cover diminished. It is what the empirical data says. I am at a loss to explain why so many people keep ignoring it.

    No, Roger, this is not what Stephen Wilde and I are saying in unison.

    Just because there’s a correlation with empirical data, this does not establish the cause. The effect of (long-term) variation in mean solar insolation is that it raises the whole temperature plot in the atmosphere, because the weighted mean has to increase to maintain radiative equilibrium. Raising the whole plot (whilst maintaining the gradient) thus raises the temperature at the base of the atmosphere (as distinct from the surface temperature.)

    The warmer temperature at the base of the atmosphere “supports” a warmer surface, because of daytime Solar input followed by night-time cooling which is limited by the temperature of the base of the atmosphere. The surface would not have got so hot if the atmosphere had been 255K (or 222K or whatever really is the correct theoretical figure.)

    The whole point about the Adiabatic Lapse Rate (or the “effective” one) is that it happens spontaneously. The IPCC et al think otherwise, in line with the thinking of Maxwell & Co which is now proven incorrect

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