Hurricane Sandy's huge size: freak of nature or climate change?

Published: 1:10 PM GMT on November 13, 2012

Hurricane Sandy was truly astounding in its size and power. At its peak size, twenty hours before landfall, Sandy had tropical storm-force winds that covered an area nearly one-fifth the area of the contiguous United States. Since detailed records of hurricane size began in 1988, only one tropical storm (Olga of 2001) has had a larger area of tropical storm-force winds, and no hurricanes has. Sandy's area of ocean with twelve-foot seas peaked at 1.4 million square miles--nearly one-half the area of the contiguous United States, or 1% of Earth's total ocean area. Most incredibly, ten hours before landfall (9:30 am EDT October 30), the total energy of Sandy's winds of tropical storm-force and higher peaked at 329 terajoules--the highest value for any Atlantic hurricane since at least 1969. This is 2.7 times higher than Katrina's peak energy, and is equivalent to five Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. At landfall, Sandy's tropical storm-force winds spanned 943 miles of the the U.S. coast. No hurricane on record has been wider; the previous record holder was Hurricane Igor of 2010, which was 863 miles in diameter. Sandy's huge size prompted high wind warnings to be posted from Chicago to Eastern Maine, and from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Florida's Lake Okeechobee--an area home to 120 million people. Sandy's winds simultaneously caused damage to buildings on the shores of Lake Michigan at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and toppled power lines in Nova Scotia, Canada--locations 1200 miles apart!

Largest Atlantic tropical cyclones for area covered by tropical storm-force winds:

Olga, 2001: 780,000 square miles
Sandy, 2012: 560,000 square miles
Lili, 1996: 550,000 square miles
Igor, 2010: 550,000 square miles
Karl, 2004: 430,000 square miles

Figure 1. Hurricane Sandy’s winds (top), on October 28, 2012, when Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane with top winds of 75 mph (this ocean surface wind data is from a radar scatterometer on the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Oceansat-2.) Hurricane Katrina’s winds (bottom) on August 28, 2005, when Katrina was a Category 5 hurricane with top winds of 175 mph (data taken by a radar scatterometer on NASA’s defunct QuickSCAT satellite.) In both maps, wind speeds above 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour are yellow; above 80 kph (50 mph) are orange; and above 95 kph (60 mph) are dark red. The most noticeable difference is the extent of the strong wind fields. For Katrina, winds over 65 kilometers per hour stretched about 500 kilometers (300 miles) from edge to edge. For Sandy, winds of that intensity spanned an region of ocean three times as great--1,500 kilometers (900 miles). Katrina was able to generate a record-height storm surge over a small area of the Mississippi coast. Sandy generated a lower but highly destructive storm surge over a much larger area, due to the storm's weaker winds but much larger size. Image credit: NASA.

How did Sandy get so big?
We understand fairly well what controls the peak strength of a hurricane's winds, but have a poor understanding of why some hurricanes get large and others stay small. A number of factors probably worked together to create a "prefect storm" situation that allowed Sandy to grow so large, and we also must acknowledge that climate change could have played a role. Here are some possible reasons why Sandy grew so large:

1) Initial size of the disturbance that became Sandy was large
Sandy formed from an African tropical wave that interacted with a large area of low pressure that covered most of the Central Caribbean. Rotunno and Emanuel (1987) found that hurricanes that form from large initial tropical disturbances like Sandy did tend to end up large in size.

Figure 2. The initial disturbance that spawned Sandy, seen here on October 20, 2012, was quite large.

2) High relative humidity in Sandy's genesis region
The amount of moisture in the atmosphere may play an important role in how large a hurricane gets (Hill and Lackmann, 2009.) Sandy was spawned in the Caribbean in a region where the relative humidity was near 70%. This is the highest humidity we saw during 2012 during the formation of any Atlantic hurricane.

3) Passage over Cuba
Sandy struck Cuba as an intensifying Category 2 hurricane with 110 mph winds. While the core of the storm was over Cuba, it was cut off from the warm ocean waters surrounding Cuba. Most of Sandy's large circulation was still over the ocean, though, and the energy the storm was able to extract from the ocean went into intensifying the spiral bands over water. When Sandy's core re-emerged over water, the hurricane now had spiral bands with heavier thunderstorm activity as a result of the extra energy pumped into the outer portion of the storm during the eye's passage over land. This extra energy in the outer portions of Sandy may have enabled it to expand in size later.

4) Interaction with a trough of low pressure over the Bahamas
As Sandy passed through the Bahamas on October 25, the storm encountered strong upper-level winds associated with a trough of low pressure to the west. These winds created high wind shear that helped weaken Sandy and destroy the eyewall. However, Sandy compensated by spreading out its tropical storm-force winds over a much wider area. Between 15 and 21 UTC on October 25, Sandy's area of tropical storm-force winds increased by more than a factor of two.

5) Leveraging of the Earth's spin
As storms move towards Earth's poles, they acquire more spin, since Earth's rotation works to put more vertical spin into the atmosphere the closer one gets to the pole. This extra spin helps storms grow larger, and we commonly see hurricanes grow in size as they move northwards.

6) Interaction with a trough of low pressure at landfall
As Sandy approached landfall in New Jersey, it encountered an extratropical low pressure system to its west. This extratropical storm began pumping cold air aloft into the hurricane, which converted Sandy into an extratropical low pressure system, or "Nor'easter". The nature of extratropical storms is to have a much larger area with strong winds than a hurricane does, since extratropical storms derive their energy from the atmosphere along a frontal boundary that is typically many hundreds of miles long. Thus, as Sandy made landfall, the hurricane's strongest winds spread out over a larger area, causing damage from Indiana to Nova Scotia.

Are we likely to see more such storms in the future?
Global warming theory (Emanuel, 2005) predicts that a 2°C (3.6°F) increase in ocean temperatures should cause an increase in the peak winds of the strongest hurricanes of about about 10%. Furthermore, warmer ocean temperatures are expected to cause hurricanes to dump 20% more rain in their cores by the year 2100, according to computer modeling studies (Knutson et al., 2010). However, there has been no published work describing how hurricane size may change with warmer oceans in a future climate. We've seen an unusual number of Atlantic hurricanes with large size in recent years, but we currently have no theoretical or computer modeling simulations that can explain why this is so, or if we might see more storms like this in the future. However, we've seen significant and unprecedented changes to our atmosphere in recent decades, due to our emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. The laws of physics demand that the atmosphere must respond. Atmospheric circulation patterns that control extreme weather events must change, and we should expect extreme storms to change in character, frequency, and intensity as a result--and not always in the ways our computer models may predict. We have pushed our climate system to a fundamentally new, higher-energy state where more heat and moisture is available to power stronger storms, and we should be concerned about the possibility that Hurricane Sandy's freak size and power were partially due to human-caused climate change.

Emanuel, K. (2005). Increasing destructiveness of tropical cyclones over the past 30 years. Nature, 436(7051), 686-688.

Hill, Kevin A., and Gary M. Lackmann (2009), "Influence of environmental humidity on tropical cyclone size," Monthly Weather Review 137.10 (2009): 3294-3315.

Knutson, T. R., McBride, J. L., Chan, J., Emanuel, K., Holland, G., Landsea, C., ... & Sugi, M. (2010). Tropical cyclones and climate change. Nature Geoscience, 3(3), 157-163.

Rotunno, R., & Emanuel, K. A. (1987). An air–sea interaction theory for tropical cyclones. Part II: Evolutionary study using a nonhydrostatic axisymmetric numerical model. J. Atmos. Sci, 44(3), 542-561.

The Atlantic is quiet, but a Nor'easter expected next week
The Atlantic is quiet, with no threat areas to discuss. An area of low pressure is predicted to develop just north of Bermuda on Wednesday, and the GFS model predicts that this low could become a subtropical cyclone as moves north-northeastwards out to sea late in the week.

The long-range models are in increasing agreement that a Nor'easter will develop near the North Carolina coast on Sunday, then move north to northeastwards early next week. High winds, heavy rain, and coastal flooding could affect the mid-Atlantic coast and New England coasts next Monday and Tuesday due to this storm, but it appears likely that the Nor'easter will stay farther out to sea than the last Nor'easter and have less of an impact on the region devastated by Sandy. Ocean temperatures off the coast of North Carolina were cooled by about 4°F (2.2°C) due to the churning action of Hurricane Sandy's winds, but are still warm enough at 22 - 24°C to potentially allow the Nor'easter to acquire some subtropical characteristics. I doubt the storm would be able to become a named subtropical storm, but it could have an unusual amount of heavy rain if it does become partially tropical. The Nor'easter is still a long ways in the future, and there is still a lot of uncertainty on where the storm might go.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.