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Humans Built a Frankenstorm Factory, and Now We've Got to Live in It

A freak occurrence, two storm systems colliding, has thrown the East Cost into turmoil. The term “Franken-X” is now routinely deployed to denote anything that has been stitched together from a foreboding amalgam of parts. But this time the term rings...

We are all happy little Dr. Frankensteins these days, the climate our unruly monster. We burn as much fossilized organic matter as we can to keep our lively cities humming. It’s a pretty grand experiment. And it comes with a perfectly Shelley-ian warning about humanly hubris.

Last year, for the first time, I found myself purchasing a stock of non-perishable foods, assembling a “go-bag,” and taping up the windows of my Brooklyn apartment. All in preparation of a hurricane that looked like it was going to smash directly into New York City. Irene ended up doing less smashing than blustering. But it sounded every bit the fearsome death machine the press had forewarned as I lay awake next to my girlfriend at 1 am, listening to rain thunder down on the roof and wondering if I really should have insisted we get the hell out of town.

New York dodged the bullet, of course. But Vermont got swamped (so did New Jersey and North Carolina). The state was besieged by massive floods, which left its residents cut off from supply and transit routes and stuck, in the dark, for days. I traveled up to southern Vermont the next November; I saw houses overtaken by the flooding, bridges knocked out, and farmland ruined for years.


Now, just one year later, we’re staring down the barrel of another region-shaking storm. Hurricane Sandy, which is now plowing through the Caribbean, is set to join forces with a storm system emerging from the Midwest. This could create a hybrid storm that could re-energize Sandy after it makes landfall, just when a typical hurricane would lose steam. Scientific American explains that it will also likely meet “a ridge of high pressure extending through the atmosphere above the northeastern Atlantic Ocean and Greenland.” And thus, the #FranckenStorm. Here’s Climate Central on how the beast rises:

Some energy will still come from the ocean surface, but some will now come from the pole-to-equator temperature contrast. This new energy source will enable Sandy to maintain its intensity, or maybe even increase it. This process is called ‘extratropical transition.’ It poses a lot of problems for forecasters. In the first place, the computer models aren’t that great at predicting exactly when it will happen. So predictions of intensity are uncertain, as the tropical cyclone may weaken before transition and then strengthen afterwards.

The media is going nuts again, but so are the forecasters. The Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post opens its take bluntly: “Analyses suggest this storm may be unlike anything the region has ever experienced.”

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration explains that “MODELS SHOW PRESSURE WELL BEYOND WHAT HAS EVER BEEN OBSERVED NEAR THE NJ/NY COAST.” Yes, they go all-caps. It’s just what they do.

For an idea of how some meteorologists feel about all of this, here’s direct quote from a National Weather Service forecaster: “I’ve never seen anything like this and I’m at a loss for expletives to describe what this storm could do.”

So. A freak occurrence, two storm systems colliding, has thrown the East Cost into turmoil. And then the climate makes the ground for catastrophe much more fertile. The term “Franken-X” is now routinely deployed to denote anything that has been stitched together from a foreboding amalgam of parts. But this time the term rings truer than usual. Indirectly, human ingenuity has done quite a bit to help build this storm.

Read the rest over at MOTHERBOARD