Hurricane season 2012, which officially ends Dec. 1, will go down in history as the year of “super storm” Sandy, which carved a path of death and devastation from the Caribbean to the Jersey shore.
Scientifically speaking, it also was notable for something it was not: intense. For the third-straight season, the tropics churned out what not long ago would rank as an abnormally large number of storms — yet curiously only one of 19 managed to reach Category 3 strength.
It wasn’t Sandy. It was otherwise forgettable Michael, which spent all of a half-day with its maximum winds above the “major” benchmark of 111 mph before spinning off into oblivion in the far-off Atlantic Ocean.
By the old school yardstick of named storms, 2012 ranked among the busiest hurricane season on record. By broader and more sophisticated measures, it was sort of middling.
“We had a large number of storms but most of them did not amount to much,” said Chris Landsea, science and operations officer for the National Hurricane Center.
“It was very unusual,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University who teams with climatologist William Gray on closely watched annual hurricane forecasts. “For major hurricanes, it was one of the quietest years in the last 24 years.”
Despite two close and soggy calls, it also went down as a lucky seventh-straight landfall-free year for South Florida.
Overall, this year’s tropical output may only muddy the climate-change debate reopened as a result of Sandy slamming the heavily populated, rarely-hit northeastern United States.
With the media capital of America at the center of its path, Sandy may have been among the most hyped hurricanes in history. Unfortunately, it largely lived up to the billing, filling New York City streets and subways with sea water, inundating quaint towns along the Jersey shore and killing 115 people. The storm, which earlier killed more than 70 people as it raked across Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas, also pulled the issue of global warming out of the political deep freezer. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, echoing environmental groups, said Sandy’s destruction had underlined the concerns of rising sea levels and stronger storms.
Sandy struck the Northeast as a rare but not unprecedented hybrid of tropical hurricane and nor’easter winter storm, forecasters said. It was so powerful it reached the second-lowest barometric pressure reading ever recorded for a northeastern storm. The massive storm, added by seasonal high tides, pushed a record storm surge into Lower Manhattan and along the New York-New Jersey coast.
But sorting out how much of a role, if any, climate change may have played in a specific storm like Sandy or even in any given hurricane season may be impossible.
“From one season to the next, it’s just not something we can see,” said Brian McNoldy, a senior researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who writes a hurricane expert blog for The Washington Post. “It’s something we may be able to see unfold over decades.”
Complicating the debate, the prevailing theory about climate change impacts has been that that warming oceans would likely produce fewer but more intense hurricanes, he said.