The Science and the Lessons of Hurricane Sandy

November 2, 2012
Looking towards Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge Wednesday night. Photo: Florin Negrutiu
The evening view from across the East River tells a tale of two cities: downtown Manhattan mostly shut down, without power, subways and most services; uptown Manhattan brightly lit, subways running, businesses and neighborhoods climbing back to some kind of usual.

In Brooklyn, families from relatively unscathed neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Carroll Gardens gathered at PS 29 Thursday to donate food and supplies for the worse-off in flooded-out Red Hook. On the crowded morning commute across the bridges, with three people per vehicle now required, those with cars picked up strangers to come along for the ride. Stories like that pop up all around the boroughs: Two cities, coming together.

But the wake of Sandy is full of questions that will take awhile to answer, and that need attention from all of us:

  • Why did so much infrastructure fail? The storm challenged the power grid, the systems for food, water, sanitation and transportation. Can we rebuild it smarter?
  • Scores of people died, and hundreds of thousands were stranded in high-rises, or flooded and burned out of their homes. Is there a better way to build to protect people from such disasters?
  • Is there a connection between Sandy’s wrath and climate change? Should we expect more such storms in the future? What can we do about that?
  • How much will all this cost us?
  • What will be the cultural and political impact of this superstorm? In particular, will it affect the election next Tuesday?
Paul Richards, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, discusses the greatly expanded capabilities of instruments able to detect clandestine nuclear tests. (Courtesy Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization)

Lower Manhattan, powerless, on Oct. 31. Photo: D. Funkhouser

There’s plenty of conversation going on about all this already. On the Connecticut public radio show “Where We Live,” on WNPR, Earth Institute Executive Director Steve Cohen joined others talking about building more resilient cities.

On Democracy Now, Cynthia Rosenzweig of the Center for Climate Systems Research and the NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies talked about New York’s vulnerabilities to extreme weather events. She had a hand in two studies, one done a decade ago, that foretold some of what came to pass this week.

Earth Institute researcher Radley Horton spoke to Terry Gross on NPR radio’s “Fresh Air” about climate and the future after Sandy — what do rising sea level, warming oceans and disappearing Arctic sea ice have to do with it?

On the New York news site CapitalNewYork, reporter Dana Rubenstein spoke with Lamont-Doherty scientist Klaus Jacob and others for her piece, “There could be worse: What New York isn’t doing (yet) about the next storm.”

Here are more articles and broadcasts following up on the storm:

High-Def Storm Models Yielded Accurate Predictions
NPR All Things Considered – Oct 31, 2012
Interview with Earth Institute professor Adam Sobel

3-D Maps Pictured Sandy’s Devastation—Five Years Ago
Inside Climate News – Nov 1, 2012
Features Center for Climate Systems Research scientist Radley Horton

Hurricane Fatalities in New York Keep Mounting
Capital New York – Nov. 1, 2012
Interview with Earth Institute professor John Mutter

Sandy Just Latest Example of Climate Change’s Threat
Voice of Russia  - Oct 31, 2012
Interview with Ben Orlove (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions)

Experts: Civil Disorder Not Likely in Sandy’s Wake
Asbury Park Press – Nov 1, 2012
Quotes Earth Institute professor John Mutter

Watching Sandy, Ignoring Climate Change
The New Yorker – Oct 30, 2012
Quotes study from Goddard Institute for Space Studies

New York Was Warned About Hurricane Danger Six Years Ago
Mother Jones – Oct 30, 2012
Quotes Ben Orlove (CRED) and study by Goddard Institute for Space Studies

Did Climate Change Cause Hurricane Sandy?
Scientific American – Oct 30, 2012
Quotes James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies


Oct. 31: Two days after Hurricane Sandy knocked out power to lower Manhattan and shut down the New York transit system, the city is struggling to recover. It’s hard to say yet how long that will take.

Klaus Jacob, a scientist with the Earth Institute, said the storm is a “wake-up call” for New York and other cities around the world to address aging infrastructure and better prepare for coastal flooding. The call comes in even louder if you consider the prospect of rising sea levels and more extreme weather events from global warming.

“We had one wake-up call last year under the name of Irene. We got away with less than we will most likely incur from Sandy,” Jacob said in an interview with the BBC. “The question is how many wake-up calls do we need to get out of our snoozing, sleeping, dreaming morning attitude? We have to get into action. We have to set priorities and spend money. For every one dollar invested in protection you get a return of four dollars of not incurred losses.”

Before 1996, some 2,000 nuclear tests were conducted, many in the open. Since, then, three nations have broken a de facto ban: India, Pakistan and North Korea. Here: a 1958 U.S. underwater test at Enewetak Atoll, Pacific Ocean. (U.S. Government)

Looking across the East River toward Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights, 3 p.m. Monday. Photo: D. Funkhouser

Jacob is one of many Earth Institute experts talking to the media about storm preparedness and the atmospheric science behind this devastating storm. Jacob also spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the difficulties faced by crews working to get the subway system back in service (see “Salt Water Puts Subway in Jeopardy”). And Adam Sobel, a professor of climate and atmospheric science, spoke on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC.

Sobel also wrote a great explanation on of how the weather systems that kicked up Sandy’s power converged on us.

Anthropologist Ben Orlove wrote for the CNN website about a survey he and colleagues are doing on how people perceive the threats from such storms — and how people can misunderstand the widespread potential for damage (as occurred last year in Vermont and upstate New York from Hurricane Irene).

If you’re into the science behind the storm, check out some other news coverage featuring Earth Institute experts.

New York Subways May Be Crippled for Extended Period
Associated Press – Oct 31, 2012
Features Lamont-Doherty scientist Klaus Jacob

Sandy’s Storm Surge May Be Lesson for Big-City Infrastructure
NBC News – Oct 30, 2012
Interviews with Radley Horton (CCSR) and Klaus Jacob (LDEO)

New York and New Jersey Cope With Catastrophe
NY Channel 13 – Oct 30, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel (LDEO) (13:12-18:52)

The Perfect Storm
ABC 20/20- Oct 30, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel  (LDEO)

Q&A, Hurricane Sandy
Columbia  Engineering School – Oct 31, 2012
Interview with Adam Sobel (LDEO)

Why Hurricane Sandy Will Be Historic
Time – Oct 29, 2012

We’d All Be Safe and Dry Now
Slate – Oct 30, 2012

In Storm’s Wake, Climate Change Raises Stakes for New York
CNN – Oct 29 2012

The Article That Predicted the New York Subway Storm Surge Problem
The Atlantic

How Much Will Sandy Cost the US Economy?
The Atlantic – Oct 29, 2012

Shallow Waters, Unusual Path May Worsen Storm Surge
New York Times – Oct 29, 2012

Expert Warns of New York City Subway Flooding
New York magazine – Oct. 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy liveblog: Which way is Sandy headed? The latest ‘Frankenstorm’ track
Christian Science Monitor – Oct 29, 2012

Report on Hurricane Sandy
Sky News – Oct 29, 2012

Morningside prepares for Hurricane Sandy
Columbia Spectator – Oct 28, 2012


Media Inquiries: 
David Funkhouser