The Eastern Seaboard is collectively holding its breath as Hurricane Sandy bears down with gale-force winds and storm surges that threaten to cause massive flooding along vast stteches of the coast.
Scientists have been following and projecting Sandy's path with all the tools at their disposal: ocean buoys, radar and satellite imagery and computer modeling. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also gathers information from special reconnaissance aircraft, which fly over hurricanes and can drop instruments into them to measure wind speeds, air pressure, temperature and altitude.
At 2 p.m. EDT Sunday, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Sandy was located about 270 miles (440 km) southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and 575 miles (930 km) south of New York, moving northeast at 14 mph. It had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (75 kph), which is just above hurricane strength.
The latest data gathered on Hurricane Sandy point to an unprecedented and mighty tempest, scientists say.
“A meteorologically mind-boggling combination of ingredients is coming together,” Weather Channel senior meteorologist Stu Ostro wrote Sunday.
Sandy is one of the most expansive storms on record, with storm-force winds extending 520 miles from her center, whipping up an area of seas 1,030 miles across. She is poised to take an unusual left turn back toward the East Coast, thanks to a strong ridge of high pressure near Greenland that is preventing the storm from moving out to sea.
The storm is also likely to develop into a strange hybrid, with a tropical cyclone at the center of a larger storm that more resembles a nor'easter. In this configuration, the combination of tropical moisture and extremely cold air will likely produce heavy snow at high elevations, according to Ostro.
As Sandy moves toward the East Coast, she'll be moving over cooler waters that would ordinarily reduce her intensity. But a trough of low pressure pulling the hurricane towards the East Coast will be adding energy derived from atmospheric temperature gradients to the storm.
According to most computer models, Sandy's eye will touch down in New Jersey sometime between 10 p.m. Monday and 4 a.m. Tuesday. At landfall, Sandy is predicted to still be spewing hurricane-force winds of 60 to 80 miles per hour.
On Saturday, Johns Hopkins researcher Seth Guikema predicted that 10 million people from Virginia to Pennsylvania would lose power thanks to high winds.
Though Sandy's winds pose a threat, the real danger is from the accompanying storm surge and likely flooding. NOAA's Hurricane Research Division has rated the danger of Sandy's winds at 2.6 on a scale from 0 to 6. But they pegged the destructive potential of Sandy-related storm surges at 5.7.
“This is a higher destructive potential than any hurricane observed between 1969 and 2005, including Category 5 storms like Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Camille and Andrew,” Weather Underground's Jeff Masters wrote on Sunday.
Monday's full moon will likely pile on 2 to 3 more feet to the storm surge thanks to higher tides. It's highly likely that the surge will overcome flood walls in Manhattan, and Masters wagers there is a 50 percent chance that Sandy's storm surge will flood part of the New York City subway system.
Flooded tunnels could mean that major arteries of the subway system would be unusable for some time. In September, Columbia University scientist Klaus Jacob told the New York Times that last year's Hurricane Irene came close to rendering the tunnels under the East and Harlem Rivers useless for a month or more.
“We’ve been extremely lucky,” Jacob told the Times. “I’m disappointed that the political process hasn’t recognized that we’re playing Russian roulette.”
New York City is already on high alert. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already ordered people living in the most vulnerable hurricane evacuation zones to get to safer places by Sunday evening. Subways and buses are shutting down tonight, with the last trains leaving at 7 p.m. and the last buses at 9 p.m. Public schools will be closed on Monday.
Currently, Sandy's death toll stands at at least 65, with 51 recorded deaths in Haiti. Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince suffered somewhere between 8 and 10 inches of rain.
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