Hurricane Sandy’s Wakeup Call: A Bigger Storm is on the Horizon, Say Queens College Scientists

December 12, 2012 | Queens College

 – QC Geologists Nicholas K. Coch and Stephen Pekar Weigh in on What Caused
the Recent Superstorm and How to Prepare for the Next One –

FLUSHING, N.Y., December 10, 2012 − It has been just over a month since Hurricane Sandy devastated the coastal communities of New York and New Jersey, causing billions of dollars in damages and affecting tens of millions of people.  According to scientific experts, next time the results could be far worse.  And there will be a next time, say Queens College Earth and Environmental Sciences professors Nicholas K. Coch and Stephen Pekar.

As Coch explains, Sandy was only a Category 1 storm at its peak with winds never going above 90 miles per hour near New York.  If something like a Category 3 or 4 storm were to hit New York – Coch points to the Great Hurricane of 1938 that killed about 700 people as an example – “the impact would be catastrophic, given the population density in the Northeast.”

Pekar adds that Sandy was considered an unusual event, what many call a “perfect storm.”  The collision of three elements contributed to Sandy’s severity:  a powerful hurricane with the energy and moisture from above-normal sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean; an unusually shaped dip in the jet stream that scientists believe may have been caused by warming in the Arctic, steering the storm from East to West; and lunar high tides that raised the sea level several feet along the East Coast.

The more complex question that scientists are still debating is whether climate change played a role in this particular storm and what its impact will be for future hurricanes. “Global warming has contributed to abnormally warm water and higher moisture content in the atmosphere, which act as the fuel for storms, higher sea levels (we expect at least a three-foot rise in sea level this century), and unusual weather patterns that may be attributed to the rapidly disappearing Arctic sea ice,” says Pekar.  “These are ideal conditions for more hurricanes and superstorms.” 

Lessons Learned: Preparing for Future Superstorms –

Coch, who has been studying for many years all the hurricanes that have occurred north of Virginia, has been sounding the alarm about how vulnerable the Northeast Coast is because of its unique topography, geography, geology, oceanography and demography.  With New York in post-Sandy recovery mode, Coch advises the government to “take remedial action now to floodproof ourselves and retreat from the shoreline.” His recommendations include:

Raise flooded power grid equipment to levels higher than possible storm surges

Rezone flood areas and in the event of a disaster, make their evacuation mandatory

Secure fuel delivery systems (perhaps by pipeline), and require backup generators at all gas stations

Begin an infrastructure project to put power lines underground in the rest of NYC

Find ways to shut off the tunnels and subway stations and make them waterproof by using giant inflatable bladders or plugs that expand to seal off entrances, steel floodgates, additional water-pumping stations and air-vent closures

Raise subway entrances and reinforce entrances to the lower floors of high-rise buildings

Install two backup systems in critical facilities such as hospitals, one of which should be waterproof

Nicholas K. Coch is an expert on environmental, coastal and estuarine geology and hurricanes and their damage patterns.  His research has been included in stories covered by the History, Weather, Discovery and National Geographic channels as well as features by national and local print and broadcast media.  Coch is currently investigating the effects of intense winds on skyscrapers in urban centers.

Stephen Pekar, who is also a research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, investigates past climate and oceanographic changes of the last 100,000,000 years.  His research often takes him to Antarctica where he looks at sedimentary core samples from deep below the sea bottom.  His findings show that a tropical climate existed 25,000,000 – 50,000,000 years ago, which was the last time that carbon dioxide was as high as what we expect for this century.  In fact, studying these times provides a guide to where our planet is now headed.  For the past two years, Pekar has participated in Al Gore’s marathon webcast devoted to climate change, “24 Hours of Reality: The Dirty Weather Report,” seen by over 16 million viewers around the world.

Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), founded in 1937, is dedicated to the idea that a first-rate education should be accessible to talented individuals of all backgrounds and financial means. Its more than 20,000 students come from over 170 nations. Each year Queens College has been cited by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s 100 “Best Value” colleges, thanks to its outstanding academics, generous financial aid packages, and relatively low costs. This year Princeton Review’s The Best 377 Colleges ranked the college fourth in the nation for “Lots of Race/Class Interaction.” The college opened its first residence hall in August 2009. More info on Queens College at www.qc.cuny.edu.

For more about Queens College visit http://www.qc.cuny.edu/Pages/default.aspx

Contact:Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services
718-997-5590
phyllis.cohen-stevens@qc.cuny.edu

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services
718-997-5593
maria.matteo@qc.cuny.edu