Sandy Could Be The Next Nightmare Hurricane We've Been Expecting

Hurricane SandyA wave crashes against the road in Havana, Cuba, on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012 as Hurricane Sandy rolls through as a Category 2 storm.

Photo: AP Images

The National Weather Service is calling it a “Frankenstorm” and multiple meteorologists are getting worried as Hurricane Sandy heads straight for the East Coast of the US. The hurricane, if it follows its current track, could make landfall near New York City near Halloween, which could be a complete nightmare.This storm could be the second coming of Hurricane Irene, which was predicted to slam into New York City in August of 2011. It could end up being stronger when it makes landfall — current predictions suggest the winds could reach 70 miles per hour.

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Mayor Bloomberg is already making plans for the city, and suggesting that people in low-lying areas be prepared for an evacuation if the storm hits the city.

Tropical cyclones — the scientific name for hurricanes and tropical storms — form when warm air above the ocean rises. More air from the surrounding areas of higher pressure push in under this rising air, pushing it up and cooling it. The entire system just keeps growing and starts to swirl.

After several severe hurricanes, and two of the most productive hurricane seasons on record, we started to wonder — What makes hurricanes strong and destructive? Are hurricanes getting worse or is it just us? Why and what can we do about it? What if we don’t?

The next great natural disaster may be headed straight for us. And it might just be named Sandy.

First, let's revisit the past with the greatest hurricane to his the US in decades: Hurricane Katrina. From a scientific standpoint, Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph when it hit New Orleans on Aug. 29. 2005. This is a strong hurricane, but not atypical.

Katrina wasn't as fast as, say, Hurricane Camille in 1969. But it was huge and its approach over shallow water resulted in a devastating storm surge.

There were also engineering problems. Katrina was especially damaging because the levees designed to protect the below-sea-level city burst under the hurricane's 25-foot high storm surge.

Hurricane Sandy, if it hits the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, is unique because it could be a combination of several different types storms. Sandy is currently a category 2 storm in the Caribbean, but could morph into a monster as it collides with an early winter storm in the West and arctic air from the North. This, in turn, will bring heavy rain, gale-force winds and coastal flooding.

Because of the merging weather systems, meteorologists fear Hurricane Sandy could be more disastrous than Hurricane Irene, which tore through the eastern U.S. in August 2011. Early damage estimates are in the multi-billion-dollar range.

Source: Reuters

In an average decade the mainland U.S. gets hit with about seven Category 1 hurricanes, four to five hurricanes that rank as Category 2 and about the same number that hit as Category 3 hurricanes, but just one Category 4 hurricane.

Hurricanes that make landfall as Category 5 storms are so rare that they only hit once every few decades.

Many factors go into the creation of one of these terrible storms, some which weaken it and others that strengthen it. Wind shear can stifle hurricane formation, and travelling over land weakens a storm. Storms can also interact with other storms, weakening both. Some researchers think that stronger storms develop because these weakening factors aren't in play.

Sandy may be the last big storm to hit this season, which ends on November 30. So far in 2012 we've seen 19 tropical cyclones, 10 of which have turned into hurricanes.

Recent hurricane seasons have been relatively strong: 2011 and 2010 are tied with 1995 as the third most active storm season on record. Interestingly, 1933 is the second most active season on record.

2005 was one of the most active Atlantic hurricane season to date — yielding 28 tropical cyclones, 15 of which became hurricanes.

The hunch that hurricanes are getting worse seems to hold up to scientific scrutiny. Researchers have noted a steady upward trend in the maximum wind speeds of the strongest hurricanes in recent years.

Researchers led by James Elsner, of Florida State University, studied hurricane data from across the world between 1981 and 2006. They found a 31 per cent increase in strong storms (those in the top fifth in a ranking of storms by their intensities), from 13 to 17 strong cyclones for a 1.8 F rise in ocean temperature.

Researchers like Elsner think that these increases in strength and numbers of storms could be due in part to global warming. The theory goes that as the oceans heat up, and hurricanes get stronger because they feed off this heat.

If hurricanes get bigger, stronger and more frequent, one nightmare scenario may just become a reality: Thousands of lives could be lost and billions of dollars of damage done if a large, strong hurricane made landfall in New York City, the way Hurricane Irene did in 2011. Sandy could be this hurricane.

See what's predicted as Sandy hits New York City

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