Grim Trajectories

It’s not happened yet that one of the new-style extra-large hurricanes arrives late in the season to collide with a deep cold trough.

The pictures being drawn must be confusing a lot of people.

The talk is of the jet stream “pulling the storm in”. Normally tropical storms curve out to sea, and yesterday many of the models still showed that ordinary behavior:

But now most of the models are saying it will land. Why should a vigorous jet heading northeast “pull” a storm to the west?

That’s the wrong way to think of it. A vigorous jet stream is associated with a steep temperature gradient, i.e., a front. What happens with a front is that it is a battle between the rotation of the earth trying to keep winds going round in circles and not mixing, versus the temperature differential that tries to mix everything up. And then fronts develop a kink, a spot where the cold air stops advancing. warm air starts riding up over the kink. This is a midlatitude baroclinic storm. It’s what drives most of the weather in spring and fall in the northern US and southern Canada (and the southern US’s weather in winter). It’s similar over other landmasses at comparable latitudes, but for various reasons North America is particularly good at doing this.

So the main thing about the kink is that warm, surface air rides up over it. And on Monday, such a kink looks likely to develop somewhere near Rochester NY, where the red line meets the blue:

The warmer the surface air, and the colder the front, the more spectacular and energetic the collision. If this occurs near the coastline, it can be especially spectacular because of the extra boost in warmth of the warm sector provided by the gulf stream. And if there’s some spin (vorticity) around, the spectacular class of storm called a nor’easter results. These are generally responsible for blizzards.

Which brings us to our peculiar situation right now. Everything seems to be falling into place for a nor’easter-hurricane combination. I’m not sure if there’s any precedent for this, and it’s beyond my abilities to get much further here, but the experts and the models seem to be saying that these phenomena will reinforce each other. A warm-core nor’easter? A frankenstorm? A blizzacane?

People get pretty worked up about weather predictions these days and it’s little wonder. But the scariest model runs are, in fact, pretty darned scary:

The winds in that scenario are not enormous for a hurricane, but they are extremely widespread. And the cold air behind the storm could even lead to a combination of tropical storm winds and snow; a spectacular blizzard.

Please note – this is just a scenario, not a prediction. But it seems to be in the realm of possibility.

Climate related? Well, Sandy is one of the new breed of very geographically large, err, very wet (see comments below) tropical storms. And the jet stream is in one of its wamdering moods, also associated with climate change, where what little cold air there is finds its way more than ordinarily far south. As usual with an individual event, theer’s no direct causality. But if something like this pans out it certainly will be perceived as an example weather weirding. And it’s another sort of event that the ever-more-wobbly system manages to serve up to us for our consideration.

Those of us who were in Chicago in the late 70s can remember an election turning on a bad response to severe weather. Risks of power outages and other forms of chaos just before an election could have some effect on people’s moods, and on the logistics of running an election. And the trajectory of the election is also unfortunate, toward a close election, where issues of fraud and vote suppression and miscounting become important.

It’s hard to imagine exactly what will come out of this witches’ brew, but there’s plenty of ways that hopes for an uneventful couple of weeks might not pan out.


  1. These things are rare, but "It’s not happened yet" is a tad extreme. It made landfall further south and it was about 2 weeks earlier in the season, but Hurricane Hazel of 1954 was a CATEGORY 4 storm which got pulled westward as it transitioned to extra-tropical. It set many records for damage from the Carolinas northward through the Mid Atlantic states and was still sporting winds near 60 kt as it reached Toronto. At Washington, DC, the National Weather Service reported the strongest wind on record:

    "National Airport recorded sustained winds at 78 MPH with gusts to 98 MPH. These records still stand today. Some of the installations were damaged. Huge trees were uprooted and toppled falling on cars, houses, roads, and utility lines. Many windows were blown out and many roofs were damaged or torn off. There were 3 deaths in the District, 13 in Virginia and 6 in Maryland. Many other people were injured. Over a half of a million dollars (1954 dollars) in damage occurred in the District with about $40 million in damages to Maryland and Virginia. Historical database shows that this storm was already extratropical when it moved through the area as it had already merged with a front, so it can not be considered as hurricane, but a rather strong extratropical storm."

    So, yeah, a more energetic atmosphere is likely to see the recurrence time reduced for these more beastly events and a more northward shift in location, but this is not a new species of animal.

  2. AGW lnks could be the lateness in the season and the ocean warmth.

    Unrelated to AGW, apparently Sandy (or whatever the name will be at landfall) will be hitting coincident with a strong high tide, which means anyone on a low-lying coast, especially including estuaries, should find somewhere else to be. Worst-case for this storm is a jog far enough north to pass just to the south of New York City, where storm surge plus tide sound sufficient to flood lower Manhattan.

  3. did you see the Emanuel video I posted a couple of weeks ago?

    I didn't spot a proper reference. But I've heard talk of this. DId I get this wrong?

  4. Listening to the likes of you, it’s like the 50’s never happened, with Hurricane Carol, Edna, and Hazel.. And that’s just 1954. Then there’s Connie, Diane, and Ione in 1955. These ones were all along the eastern seaboard. If that were happening today, you and your fellow CAGW alarmist buddies like Masters, McKibbon, and Romm would be frothing at the mouth.

    What’s more, why don’t you read up to date scientific research that show little if any trend in tropical storm frequency or strength associated with AGW, like here:

  5. "the jet stream is in one of its wamdering moods, also associated with climate change, "

    I think this comment is a bit 'exaggerated.' Why? Because I've read a number of articles that said low solar activity causes changes in wind patterns and in the jet stream. And right now, we are in a period of low solar activity.

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  7. Huh, what? All NHC projections keep this a warm core "tropical" system until after landfall. It's still tropical storm season. I'm afraid you have no basis to say this is not simply a tropical storm. That's exactly what it is at this point.

  8. He talks about intensity and rainfall, I thought you meant geographic size, which Sandy does have. EC says it's going to dump a lot of water too.

    Somebody at GMAO mentioned that tropical and midlatitude systems have been known to join in the N. Atlantic, but it happening this far south is an outlier. Sorry, no refs. 🙂

  9. Yeah, I'm going to have to back down. I'll weasel out of it a bit by going with wetter for now. Hope nobody notices. 🙂

    It's really my impression that the storms are getting larger in area. But I can't back it up.

  10. I didn't include this in my earlier comment, because I didn't have the data, but my suspicion that the models were hyperventilating on the intensity as I thought I recalled they had done with Irene last year was confirmed by today's discussion at the National Weather Service's HPC:


    This is still a rare and serious situation, but the reason the models have looked so super-scary is that they still don't handle the interaction between convection and the larger scale dynamics very well. The notion that this situation is totally unprecedented has been amplified by the echo chamber of social media driving conventional media to compete for eyeballs. This could still set records for historical extremes, but forecasting that with any confidence 5-7 days in advance with current modeling technology is sheer fantasy: great fun for the weather fanboyz who've already crashed their forum server at least once already (106,910 Views for just the Mid Atlantic Sandy thread alone), but not in the realm of reality.

  11. "These winds are normally stopped by the jet stream but scientists have found that this bends at times of low solar activity allowing the cold air through. The connection between the jet stream bending and solar activity is not fully understood."

  12. OK, the "number of articles" you have read is at least 1.

    This is not the worst press reporting I have seen, but the usual refusal to provide a link to the investigator or the publication is typically infuriating. So it's hard to evaluate the claim, which is new to me.

    You have evidence that X is causally associated with Z. Let us, for purposes of argument, stipulate that your claim is true.

    I provide an increasingly accepted claim (via recognized leaders of the climate science community, see our currently running video) that Y is causally associated with Z.

    Does this claim that Y is causally associated with Z contradict or contraindicate a claim that X is causally associated with Z?

    How does stipulating the latter imply that a claim to the former effect is "exaggerated"?


    The Daily Mail continues the contemptible journalistic practice of not linking to research they cite. The paper is here. Proceedings of the Royal Society no less. Haven't looked at it yet to see if the Daily Mail spin is tolerably on target.

    First I have heard of it, so thanks for the clue.

  13. Hi Michael,

    Here's another related article from the BBC, a source probably more to your liking. And it has a link to the source paper:

    From the BBC article:

    "Britain is set to face an increase in harsh winters, with up to one-in-seven gripping the UK with prolonged sub-zero temperatures, a study has suggested.

    The projection was based on research that identified how low solar activity affected winter weather patterns."

    . . .

    "There were colder winters in Europe. That almost certainly means, from what we understand about the blocking mechanisms that cause them, that there were warmer winters in Greenland," he observed.

    . . .

    "He explained that a similar pattern could be observed in recent events: "Looking at satellite data, we found that when solar activity was low, there was an increase in the number of blocking events of the jetstream over the Atlantic.

    "That led to us getting colder weather in Europe. The same events brought warm air from the tropics to Greenland, so it was getting warmer.

    One other comment that I just realized from re-reading the BBC article and that is, could the recent Greenland warming be due to the low solar activity as well? Just speculating... (And I hope scientists and reporters who talk about Greenland melting mention this paper's thoughts on the possibility that low solar activity is the cause or playing a role)

  14. I find the trivialization of this event by those who wish to argue about theory unpleasant at best. It's interesting because some of my other reading today is about the godliness of rape. The frame of mind that dismisses real human dilemmas and the life of mother and child to make political points and reinforce rigid personal religious convictions (calling themselves Christians but ignoring Christ's teachings) is quite similar.

    Since I tried to dismiss the threat of this storm when first noticed about five days ago, I am watching in mounting apprehension as it targets both my parents home (where I am tied to extreme caregiving and am the only person well enough to hook up the generator when the power goes out) in New Jersey and my own home in Boston on the waterfront. Facts such as the likely flooding of the New York City subway system don't seem to me to support trivialization in the service of theory. This is real.

    Since I like real things, I recommend this video from the ISS:

    If you can trivialize a storm that is approaching a thousand miles across and has already raised the tides in Boston this morning beyond normal highs though it's nowhere near, you need to check in to the human race and develop a little compassion. Rather than feeding on bile, try a reality check. We all need each other.

  15. I'm with you. Please please let it make a noise like a hoop and roll away. Buttake a look:

    Water Vapor:

    Credible model:

    Satellite pix are bearing out if not exceeding projections, and each passing hour confirms the interaction between the Greenland high, jet stream, and tropical whatsit subsumed in northeaster. A little local lore: northeasters do more damage than hurricanes in the northeast, because they last a long time.

    Jennifer Francis of Rutgers has been much cited on the subject of how the jet stream is changing (and Rossby waves if that's not too fancy) and this appears to be part of it. So claiming we are not in an integrated system that is changing suggests to me that somebody is not interested in observing how the coriolis forces are being bent.

  16. To some this might seem borderline oversharing, but the point I wished to make is that all this theorizing in service, innocent or not, of promoting an Ayn Randian agenda is ignoring the real human costs of pretending it's all about theory, and not about reality and facts. It is real people we are hurting by using talking points to prevent a real conversation about how to address our accelerating problems taking place.

  17. Michael, IIRC there are some prior relevant results, but Grinsted et al. (h/t Tamino for reminding me by posting the abstract) very much supports your view. Whether it's a trend that's amenable to eyeballing is another matter, but on the face of it is plausible given the recent pile-up of warm years.

  18. This sort of attribution is tricky work, but at the moment I'd have to say that the Arctic sea ice/snow cover reduction looks like a far stronger correlation. The difficulty with this sort of solar hypothesis (there's been a string of them) is that they have to rely on low-energy events in the stratosphere driving high-energy events in the troposphere, so far (although I haven't read the Lockwood paper yet) without being able to firm up a mechanism (thus "not fully understood"). The ice and snow, on the other hand, can do the job in a much more straightforward way, all within the troposphere. All of that said, it remains intrinsically difficult to exclude any solar effect.

    But maybe read the relevant papers, the central thread of the research being available on Jennifer Francis' pubs page. She doesn't have the recent Overland et al. paper posted yet, but you can email her for a copy.

  19. FWIW, the storm was amping up when I left Boston early this afternoon, was fairly quiet across Connecticut, New York, and northern New Jersey, and is now picking up near Princeton (nearest cities Trenton and Philadelphia, north of projected landfall). The storm is not due until tomorrow afternoon; these early symptoms are indicators its power and size.

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    "... Weather systems are progressing more slowly, raising the chances for long-duration extreme events, like droughts, floods, and heat waves.

    "“[The] tendency for weather to hang around longer is going to favor extreme weather conditions that are related to persistent weather patterns,” said Francis, the study’s lead author.
    One does not have to look hard to find an example of an extreme event that resulted from a huge, slow-moving swing in the jet stream. It was a stuck or “blocking weather pattern” – with a massive dome of high pressure ...."

    The study referenced is:
    Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes

  22. Michael and Dan, I would like to propose that P3 host a crowd-sourced colloquium on the subject of what meassage(s) scientists, journalists and activists should be putting out in the aftermath of Sandy. The wide range of inconsistency is obvious enough, but what got me really thinking about this was watching Cuomo's strong statement this AM and wondering if, now that we *finally* have significant numbers of politicians saying such things, they're getting the needed support.

    If this idea sounds appealing on the face of it, I could write up something with more detail.

  23. Yes, please give it a shot.

    You are more than welcome to submit an article, and I expect we'll run it.

    We are very interested in crowdsourcing in general, and the rule is, each thread has its own rules and the thread author enforces them. (We're working on improving the software to allow this. For now, you can just let us know what rules of engagement you want.)

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