Two years ago this evening, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, becoming the second costliest storm in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina. The media will talk to you today about Superstorm Sandy. They are wrong. Superstorm Sandy did not exist.
Everyone loves something new—new gadgets, new cars, new clothes. Broadcast media, on the other hand, enjoys new terms even more than material things like new diseases or new royal offspring. The catchier the term the better, and this is especially true in the often hard-to-sell world of weather. The Ohio-D.C. Derecho of 2012 caused six-figure damages and knocked out power to millions of people during a brutal heat wave. It was also the first time most people in the United States heard the word "derecho."
Derechos—lines of severe thunderstorms that produce intense, continuous wind damage over a 200+ mile path—have been around forever, but since they usually affect the unpopulated corn fields that occupy the space between New York and California, the word wasn't a part anyone's vocabulary until that storm struck heavily populated areas and got airtime on the nightly news.
The same goes for the "polar vortex" last winter. Someone mentioned it in writing for the first time back in the 1800s, but hey, nobody outside of atmospheric scientists had ever heard the term, so it was a great new way for the media to describe an intense cold snap.
Hype or not, terms like derecho and polar vortex are scientifically accurate words used to describe specific types of weather events. "Superstorm," on the other hand, is not scientific. A "superstorm" is nothing. "Superstorm" deserves every redundant quotation mark it gets. To call Hurricane Sandy a "superstorm" is to paint a scary face on the forehead of a monster.
Hurricane Sandy approached a strange weather setup as it moved north, with a ridge of high pressure to its northeast and a trough of low pressure to its northwest. As Sandy interacted with these features, it began a process called "extratropical transition" that is typical of almost every tropical system that moves into the higher latitudes.
An extratropical cyclone is the kind of low pressure system we see on a daily basis in North America—a low that feeds its energy off of the jet stream and has cold and warm fronts extending off of it like tentacles. When a tropical cyclone begins to rapidly move into the higher latitudes, it loses its tropical characteristics and starts to transition into an extratropical cyclone.
The difference between "tropical" and "extratropical" is mostly inside baseball, but the basic idea is that a transitioning hurricane will begin to feed its energy from the jet stream as opposed to thunderstorms around its eye, and it will develop cold and warm fronts.
When storms transition from tropical to extratropical, their fundamental structure begins to change and their wind field increases in size. This is what happened to Sandy. As Sandy transitioned into an extratropical cyclone, it began feeding its energy from the jet stream, allowing it to grow in size and develop cold and warm fronts. By the time Sandy made landfall, it more closely resembled a nor'easter on steroids than a hurricane, as evidenced by the fact that its wind field stretched from Myrtle Beach to Portland and the system dropped up to three feet of snow in the mountains of West Virginia.
The National Hurricane Center officially classified the storm as "Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy" when it came ashore in New Jersey, but the name Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy is nowhere near as sexy to slap on a chyron as Superstorm Sandy.
The effects of the storm's wind and surge and blizzard and their associated death toll of more than 150 people in the United States alone were horrible enough without having to ascribe some mystical name to the system. It was just Hurricane Sandy. Superstorm Sandy did not exist.
[Images: CIMSS, NHC]