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How a Warm Earth fueled Hurricane Sandy

Brian Reynolds's picture
Global Power Solutions, LLC
  • Member since 2018
  • 11 items added with 1,428 views
  • Oct 31, 2012

This morning residents of New Jersey woke up and discovered that Hurricane Sandy had turned the garden state into a Michael Bay film.  Damages to property, infrastructure and the economy will likely be greater than any other disaster the east coast has seen.  Exceptionally powerful computers model weather like this. They’re required because the computations are far more involved then any team of scientists could hope to tackle longhand. Despite that fact you should clear that we understand of the cause of the hurricane.  The simple truth is that this tragedy was largely one we brought on ourselves.

The Facts:

Hurricanes are among the most well studied natural phenomenon on the planet.  They’re studied because they’re massive and long in duration.  They’re studied because they inspire fear in a way only an unstoppable force can, but mostly hurricanes are well studied because they’re the most expensive of all the natural disasters and insurance companies pay fantastic amounts of money to understand them.

The unknowns of climate change are many; ice-melt, sea-level rise, changes to the salinity of ocean water and alterations to the trade winds being just a few that you may have heard of.  Reasonable people have constant disagreements on the relative values of these in predicting the way that an altered climatic system works but all research assures us that the layman only needs to understand one simple concept:

The Earth is not an island.

We’ve been aware that the earth revolves around the sun for some 500 years (not that long given that some readers have relatives near 100) so maybe we haven’t gotten used to the idea that it’s always day and always night. 24-hours a day the earth takes on energy from the sun.  24-hours a day it releases that energy on the night-side of the planet. For a very long time the atmosphere has had just enough of the right materials in it to hold some of that energy as heat.  This keeps us 40 to 60 degrees warmer at night than if it didn’t.  More poorly understood is the fact that the portion of the atmosphere responsible for this is less than half of one percent of the sky.  That’s right – greenhouse gasses make up less than this much of the sky:

Percentage of the Atmosphere comprised of the GHG CO2

The math behind climate change is simple. Roughly 1/4 of 0.1 percent of the atmosphere is composed of gases that  trap energy from the sun.  Carbon released for power and transport has altered that and we are now racing toward 1/2 of 0.1 percent doing the same job. The earth is warming.

The ever-so-slight thickening of the atmosphere alters the balance of energy absorbed and released by the planet.  The process is analogous to the gears in a car.  Rev your engine to 5000 RPM in first gear and you’ll run out of gas as quickly as someone racing around a track with their tachometer in the same spot.  We haven’t changed how much energy is being introduced to the system, we’ve changed how the system is dealing with that energy.  Now instead of bleeding heat out into space we’re retaining it and all that extra energy has to go somewhere.  That “somewhere” is our oceans.  Next time you boil water notice how long it takes and how much energy is required to boil even a small pot.  Water is “energy hungry” and it holds onto that energy until there’s some good reason to release it.  Some good reason like a hurricane overhead.

Five degrees:

As Hurricane Sandy formed the Atlantic ocean’s surface temperature is now five degrees warmer than normal.  Let that sink in for a minute.  The entire surface of the Atlantic ocean averages five degrees warmer.

What does that mean for hurricanes?  Hurricanes get their power by feeding on the warm water under them.  That means that a warmer Atlantic has a lot more fuel to contribute.  How much more?  Hard to say for sure but the the number is astronomical.  Take the top inch of ocean surface below hurricane Katrina (125,000 sq. miles) then run the math to heat that volume by five degrees.  What you get is an amount of energy in that water eight times greater than was released in all the nuclear tests in the history of the world.  Take a look at the chart below.  Here we have the math behind the storm.  What you see is the combined energy of all the nuclear tests ever conducted on earth followed by the energy increase in the top 1″ of water under each of the hurricanes listed.  

Additional energy in 1" of surface water under modern hurricanes

The New Math:

A five degree rise for just the first inch of ocean, for a static area 900 miles in diameter (the size of hurricane Sandy) requires 95-million terajoules of energy.  If we assume it gets used the most efficiently it can be, a ton of coal gets you about 35 gigajoules. That means we’d need a cube of coal .9 of a mile/side to generate the energy needed to heat just that first inch of water five degrees. Now mind you that all that energy is a fraction of the heat being trapped.  Just a fraction.  We’re going to see a lot more storms get charged up this way.

And So:

Of course storms are larger, stronger and more willing to wander north.  Of course they’re more damaging.  Of course they’re more destructive. There’s simply no comparison between the energy the sun pours down on the earth and what we are capable of generating. Remember, this is only the top inch of ocean surface we’ve compared and we’ve only looking at a static location. Hurricanes uncover far more than the first inch of water.  Waves, currents and the storm’s transit from Africa to North America expose a hurracane to awesome amounts of energy orders of magnitude greater than shown here.

But this is no help to the East Coast. New Jersey will be a mess for the foreseeable future. New York City and its transit systems will see spectacular cost overruns in dealing with this part of the climate crisis. We can’t do anything about these problems, but if you’re reading this with fresh eyes, if these comparisons are new to you, please read more and consider how you can be part of the solution.

Brian Reynolds's picture
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Fred Rogers's picture
Fred Rogers on Nov 3, 2012

Uh, Brian, I was born in 1957. Since then the average sea temperature is up about 0.8 degrees. Please cite your source for clamping the Atlantic is 5 degrees warmer. Frankly, I don't think so.  

Fred Rogers's picture
Fred Rogers on Nov 3, 2012

5 degrees warmer, ROFLMAO. Please provide a citation. Because your wrong by about a factor of 5. 

Mike Helfrich's picture
Mike Helfrich on Nov 3, 2012

Mr. Reynolds,

    Could you please cite your source for the 5 degree warming in the Atlantic? I'll assume you are using Fahrenheit and not Celsius, since your other numreical references are in Miles, I'll assume you are not using metric.

Whenever I get into certain topics of conversation and I make statements of fact, I get the response of "well, where did you get THAT fact?". And I better be able to give some citation, or my argument falls on deaf ears. Facts are the holy grail, and facts can seperate opinion from reality.




Trevor Holcroft's picture
Trevor Holcroft on Nov 3, 2012

The whole basis of your theory is totally wrong.

The sea temp has not risen by 5 deg over say 50 years.  Maybe a tenth-ish of that.  Therefore all your conclusions are similarly up the spout.

The point you should realise is that if the earth was so sensitive to CO2 and warming (ie to create a runaway effect) then we would not be here.  Its not and we are.

I sincerely suggest to you nthat you nlook at the facts.

Agust Bjarnason's picture
Agust Bjarnason on Nov 3, 2012

Hi Brian

I seems that you have forgot the decimal point.  0.5°C is more correct than 5°C for the average sea temperature. Please correct!  (I was born 1945).






ramon leigh's picture
ramon leigh on Nov 3, 2012

  I've seen some incorrect data presented as fact before, but this guy is living on Mars.

Since I was born, in 1950, the sea temps have increased between .3 and .5 degrees C.

And the logic is also bizarre on other counts. If a warmer ocean accounted for Sandy's strength, how come those few hurricanes we've been seeing over the past several years are not strong ones? Why so few hurricanes? Global warming folks predicted an avalanch of hurricanes, and very strong ones (unlike the lowly Cat 1 that was Sandy) and we've seen zilch in the recent and not so recent past. 

Apparently those warm oceans only affect some hurricanes, and don't seem able to produce anything stronger than a weak Cat 1.  But hurricane science is far in advance of climatology, and hurricane experts have always made it plain that global warming's effects on hurricanes, even if the warming were far greater than we've seen so far, would be minimal. The fact that the Earth has not warmed one iota in the past 16 years apparently doesn't register on these global warming advocates.

They must be getting pretty desperate to ignore scientific data showing no warming and instead make silly and , in this case, unbelievably inaccurate claims about irrelevant storms to evoke hysteria. 


Brian Reynolds's picture
Brian Reynolds on Nov 3, 2012

Jim, Ramon, Trevor, Scannit & Shivering,

Thank you all for you comments, they are certainly appreciated.

The point of this piece isn't the exact temperature of the ocean, which is admittedly hard to calculate (You'll note in reading one other comments that you don't agree with me or one another after all) but rather that the earth isn't a closed system.  The vast preponderance of energy into and out of the system is in the form of solar radiation the day side and energy loss on the night side.  The albedo effect that retains a healthy portion of that energy is the result of a tremendously small amount of the atmosphere.  Human activity on this planet is not so great that we have massively changed the constitution of the whole atmosphere but it is great enough that we have made a substantial change to the very tiny part of the atmosphere responsible for a stable climate.

In the piece above you'll note that the facts stipulated are 5 degrees, the first inch of ocean water and a stable area.  Under these three criteria I've said that Sandy was energized substantially.  If you would prefer we look at a 0.5 degree change (or any other change) that's fine but any refinement of these numbers should also address the facts you've chosen not to challenge.  Sandy drew energy from an area an order of magnitude larger than the one stated and from ocean waters of far greater than one inch.  Refining these will only serve to increase the total energy available to fuel this horrible storm.

If anyone produces a conclusion based on a better mathematical model of the energy in the Atlantic for this storm on the dates in question vs. historic norms I will gladly eat my words.  Sadly, there will be no such model.  We will continue to have larger, less frequent, more devastating storms fueled by much warmer oceans and breaking all previous records for damages.  Last night on the telethon for Sandy this was referred to as "What will surely be remembered as the storm of the century".  There is no question, there will be far worst storms.

Thanks again for you attention.



Eve Stevens's picture
Eve Stevens on Nov 4, 2012

Brian, Seven major hurricanes hit the east coast from 1954 to 1960, when the ocean was .3 C cooler and C02 was 310 ppm. A major hurricane has not hit the east coast since. Please rethink your line of reasoning because it seems C02 and warm ocean temperatures were not the cause of Sandy, which was not even a hurricane at landfall.

I do understand why you wrote what you did. Money! You own a clean power company.

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