A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Revkin
celebrated the fifth birthday of his Dot Earth blog by writing a post examining
the ways he could improve it. Revkin started Dot Earth to bring others into his
effort to learn about the science behind reducing humanity’s impact on the
planet. It’s a platform built to engage scientists, experts, and everyday readers
in a forum where they can learn more about each other and the environment. “I’m
convinced that there is vast untapped potential to use the Web and other means
to build global awareness and meaningful relationships,” he said in a 2009 post.
In order to bring people in, he
insists on writing and corresponding with a healthy amount of nuance. He’s
written more than 2,000 posts and responded to thousands of comments, each time
making sure not to oversimplify the science or the takeaway. Doing otherwise, he says,
could lead to polarization. He’s seeing that polarization now, as a
reaction to Sandy. “Just
seeing how this plays out, as the activists on both sides try to amp up the
messaging as a way to get traction on climate or to resist it,” he says. “Over
and over again you see reality go to the side.”
After Sandy hit, he avoided saying in a
flat and simple way that the storm was or wasn’t the result of climate change.
Instead he wrote posts that asked scientists to chime in on climate change’s
influence, he called for an examination of what can be learned from building
near the coast, he assessed the political message of Mayor Bloomberg, and he
pointed out energy innovations that worked during the storm. His goal was, and
is, to build a level of trust based on reality, so that people will have continued
faith in his dispatches. “Lately, I’ve been describing the kind of inquiry I do
on Dot Earth as providing a service akin to that of a mountain guide after an
avalanche,” he said in a 2009 post. “Follow me and I can guarantee an honest
search for a safe path.”
That mantra hasn’t changed, but now he’s even more interested in engaging in discussion to find the correct path,
something that has continued to improve in the last half decade on Dot Earth. I called up Revkin, who I took an environmental science journalism class from in 2004, so he could take us inside his process as he writes about the
lessons of Sandy.
In 2009, Dot Earth
moved to the editorial side of paper. Can you explain why that change happened? Yeah, it’s actually different than what people think. The Times has no tradition of having a daily
news contribution from someone who’s not on staff. In other words, there are
stringers in, like, Istanbul and Shanghai or Iraq who will be feeding stuff, but
other than that, there are no freelance folks who are a daily presence on the
news side of the paper. And the environment desk, which was new in 2009, didn’t
have a budget line for blogs. Over at Op-Ed, they have more of a tradition of
having contributors. Like Linda Greenhouse,
a former Supreme Court reporter writes online commentary there now. Tim Egan, a
national correspondent, is there. They are both online. So it was just a better fit, and they had a budget
line. So I moved over there for practical reasons. And, of course, I have
gotten to a point where I do have ideas about things, and there are constraints
that come from a news approach to information.
There are things I think I know enough about to have an opinion
on. Now, I’m a bad fit for the editorial side of the paper, because my opinion
is often, We don’t know. So I’m not going to give you an easy answer. I’ll
never be a Paul Krugman. I’m just not out there to give you a particular
worldview. I’m a slave to reality, and that includes uncertainty.
A video showing Sandy’s life from October 23 to October 31.
It was as a nine-year-old kid in Reading, Pennsylvania, that University of Miami scientist Brian McNoldy developed a fascination with hurricanes. “I think most of us have a storm,” he says. “Mine was Hurricane Gloria, in 1985.”
TV newscasters warned about the impending winds and rain. Local officials cancelled school for a few days. When the storm hit, it knocked out power. McNoldy went outside. “I can still remember how strong the winds were,” he says. “We didn’t get hit by the eyewall—just by the rainbands, but even that was pretty impressive.”
After earning undergraduate degrees in physics and astronomy at Lycoming College, a graduate degree in atmospheric science at Colorado State University, he landed at the University of Miami in January of 2012. “This is an up-and-coming school in hurricane research, and there’s a lot of momentum going here,” he says. “I'm happy to have the opportunity to be part of it.”
For his job, he works on something called “vortex initialization code” for a joint project with the Navy. It’s a series of sophisticated computer programs that allow scientists to take a crudely-represented hurricane out of a model analysis, replace it with a more realistic hurricane that has tuneable factors (such as intensity, size of the storm, etc.), and see how changes affect the forecast.
When he’s not working on the vortex code, he writes about hurricanes. “I started what, at the time, wasn’t called a blog, because they weren’t really there yet, in 1996,” he says. “For any storm—not even a storm, for any wave in the Atlantic, I would have my little list of people who were interested in what was going on, and I would send updates to them during hurricane season. I've been doing that for 16 years now.”
His audience has grown. From 2007 to 2010, he was invited to blog about hurricanes for The New York Times. In 2012, he started blogging for the Washington Post and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. On October 22, when Sandy was still Tropical Depression 18, he was one of the first to report on the likelihood of it turning into the Northeast U.S. with possibly devastating consequences. We caught up with him to learn a bit more about the science behind Sandy.
When did you start watching Sandy? I think some of the models were picking up on something forming in the Western Caribbean probably by about October 12 or 13. Some models picked up, run after run, something that would form in the Western Caribbean, and then would move north toward Cuba. That persisted and they ended up being right. The National Hurricane Center issued the first advisory on Tropical Depression 18 on October 22, then upgraded it to Tropical Storm Sandy later the same day. It eventually headed north over Jamaica and Cuba. I thought, Wow, that’s extremely impressive for those models.
A view of the changed coastline in New Jersey. Photo: NASA Goddard
Instead of gathering a widespread assortment of the week's best articles, videos, and photos, I've included the most thought-provoking and eye-opening articles on Sandy and her aftermath. Some are snapshots of people and places, others take a look at the science of the storm, and some take a look at the political effects of a storm that has caused tens of billions of dollars in damage and more than 150 deaths internationally. The articles begin with a blog posted on October 24.
Please share the best articles you've read about Sandy in the comments section.
The deterministic runs from the various global models continue to
diverge, with some still showing a track out to sea (GFS and CMC) and
some showing a more northerly track into the northeast U.S. coast (ECMWF
and NOGAPS). It’s unclear yet which will verify, if any, but the
ensembles have been trending westward, with more members now showing a
very powerful cyclone (probably not completely tropical) slamming into
the mid-Atlantic and Northeast states.
The ominous forecast by last night’s ECMWF deterministic run places
an incredibly strong cyclone off the New Jersey coast on Monday
evening ... with tropical storm to hurricane force winds covering every
state between Virginia and Maine (note that the wind speeds on this map
are at 5,000’ altitude, not the surface). A scenario such as this would
be devastating: a huge area with destructive winds, extensive inland
flooding, possibly heavy snow on the west side, and severe coastal
flooding and erosion.
While there is still inherent uncertainty in the forecast, especially
considering we are at least five days away from the phase, the majority of
the numerical guidance has now come into agreement that a phasing event
will occur precisely on the 21st anniversary of the Perfect Storm
somewhere between the mid-Atlantic states through Maine or potentially
the Nova Scotia region. Most of the models now indicate even stronger
jet dynamics will occur next week than occurred during for the Perfect
Storm, and that today’s storm could potentially deepen to well below 960mb or even below 950mb. The fact that the Gulf Stream is anomalously
warm for this time of year means that Sandy will weaken less as a
tropical system than it otherwise would have prior to the phase. Also, a
very strong blocking scenario (very negative NAO) has developed over
the north Atlantic means that the cyclone will be very slow moving, and
is likely to retrograde westward into the northeastern U.S. rather than
continue out to sea like most recurving extratropical cyclones do.
While it is too early to pin-down exact impacts from the system at this
time, it is likely that portions of the coastal Northeast will
experience a damaging storm surge, significant beach erosion, and a
prolonged severe wind and heavy rain event. Meanwhile, interior regions
of western Pennsylvania into Ohio may simultaneously be experiencing
heavy snowfall. Stay tuned!
There were no shortage of heroes as Hurricane Sandy made its way from the Caribbean, up along the coast of the southeastern United States, into New Jersey, and then across Pennsylvania. Hospital personnel evacuated patients from at least one facility that lost power. Firemen put out blazes in the storm. Police officers rescued people during massive flooding. Some heroes did not make it. Off duty police officer Artur Kasprzak drowned in the basement of his Staten Island home after saving seven family members from the flooding.