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Dispatches : Nature

Video of the Rockaways After the Storm

Yesterday, Vimeo selected a video called Rockaway Needs Us as a staff pick. It's just the latest video that shows the effects of Sandy, from the recreational to devastation. The shorts range from a timelapse of the storm moving into New York City, to a surf compilation shot off Florida, to a bicycle tour of Manhattan's flooding, to a dispatch from the Columbia University scientist who predicted New York City's flooded subways—he talks about the flooding from his damaged home.

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Andrew Revkin on Lessons Learned From Sandy

8139104515_60be5b0033_bHurricane Sandy after landfall. Photo: NASA Goddard

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.

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Hurricane Researcher Brian McNoldy on the Science Behind Sandy

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.

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This Week's Missing Links, November 3

8150910119_45d5c9012b_cA 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.

For the best longreads of the week, check out "Weekend Reading: Eyes Open."

"Sandy Strengthens to Hurricane on Approach to Jamaica; Odds of East Coast Impact Grow," Capital Weather Gang

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.

"Perfect Storm" Set to Occur on 21st Anniversary of Historic Event
, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Blog

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!

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Adventure Video of the Week: Helicopter Rescues During Hurricane Sandy

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.

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