Will Byrnes's Reviews > Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future

Storm Surge by Adam Sobel
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Although the causes are different, a storm surge is quite similar to a tsunami in its basic physics—both are elevations of the water surface that travel inland essentially as very long waves. The experience of the two phenomena on the ground can be similarly terrifying.
After a brief period of formation, in which Sobel offers some explanation for how he came to write Storm Surge, Part One starts out slowly. Chapters alternate between the days of Sandy’s lives, (there do seem to be several) and scientific background. The tale acquires some heft when Sobel gets into a bit of jargonized description of the elements that contributed to the creation of Sandy, (Sandy was definitely a feminine name this time, nestled between Rafael and Tony in the 2012 list, and no, I won’t go for the obvious here. There has to be a first time.) and some of the weather models in use today; continues to warm as we gain information about the history of forecasting, meets up with and joins other information about global weather cycles and oscillations, (every relationship has its ups and downs) adding info on how Sandy’s victims were despoiled, gains strength with consideration of how we coped with the aftermath, then picks up speed in Part Two, switches from a powerful tropical heat engine to one with a much colder heart, gaining strength and power where others might have wandered off, looking at the bigger picture, the general warming, the rising tides, delivers large amounts of information on how several places in the world have tried to address the problem of surges and rising oceans, and considers what we might have to do to keep from being so devastated again, (she was so beautifully formed), looks at the limits to our disaster planning, some unavoidable, some ridiculous, blows with a righteous wind about the disingenuousness of mindless and/or corrupt climate change deniers, then subsides with some kind words for those with foresight and a long view. You may need some time to recover after you’re done.

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A satellite image of The Big Kahuna - from Scientific American

There are several elements in Storm Surge that merit attention. First is the information presented. Second is the accessibility of the information. Sobel is writing, ostensibly, for an audience of non-meteorologists. Third is the appeal of the tale-teller. Does he engage the reader? Is he someone you want to listen to?

Adam Sobel is one of those go-to guys the TV news shows call on when they need to get explanations from a scientist about weather phenomena. But the short-form of TV news blips does not really allow for an in-depth consideration of what Sandy was all about. And there is a lot of story to be told here. How did Superstorm Sandy come to be? What was different about it, and is it more a one-off or a harbinger of things to come?

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Adam Sobel

Like dark forces everywhere, the entities we know as hurricanes have different names depending on who is talking and where they are. (hurricane, typhoon, sundry sorts of cyclone) To weather geeks (no, they do not bite the head off storms) Sandy was a tropical cyclone that transitioned into an extratropical cyclone. (No surgery was required, but Sandy did go through some fundamental changes). Sobel explains what this means, and the difference between the two types is surprising and fascinating. Hurricanes cause damage via rain, wind and storm surge. The focus here is on the surge element. Take a large body of water, an ocean say, then blow on it in one direction for a modest distance, say a thousand or two thousand miles, with hurricane-force winds and voila, coastal devastation.

Most major cities are reasonably well protected from the usual item we consider when thinking about hurricanes, wind speed. In fact this is how such storms are rated. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale defines categories of hurricane,1 through 5, based on relative wind speed. But the National Weather Service acknowledges:
storm surge-induced flooding has killed more people in the United States in hurricanes than all other hurricane-related threats (freshwater flooding, winds, and tornadoes) combined since 1900
So the surge element merits some special attention.

As a Brooklyn resident, I got a bit of first hand experience with the joys of rising water in a coastal place. These included watching from my living room window as multiple explosions burst like fireworks in Manhattan, switching off the lights, sitting in a gas line for eight hours, not being able to get to work for several days, seeing large trees resting peacefully atop newly squashed cars, but the most chilling personally was on the night when I was able to drive to work for the first time since the storm. My route includes Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). There is a place where the road turns north from west in Brooklyn Heights, revealing the skyline of lower Manhattan. Even for a native the sight of these dazzling city lights never fails to stir some inner part that responds to glitz and magnificence. On this night, the road was nearly empty. I had to maneuver around a too-large tree branch that had landed in the roadway. As I rounded that bend, it was as if a black hole had opened up in the earth. Instead of the usual spectacle, there was darkness, as far as the eye could see. I felt myself veering into the left lane, as if drawn closer to the city, my subconscious hoping that moving a few feet closer might reveal what my eyes could not perceive. It was a chilling moment.

Of course, I had had it pretty easy. No personal harm, other than lost time and wages. Maybe an increased sense of vulnerability, a good trick in post 9/11 New York City. I had not suffered at all like many residents of the region whose homes had been destroyed, whose lives had been lost. And comparing the losses in the region to those inflicted by major storms on third world coastal residents, the difference is stark.

There is a lot of very interesting material in this book. You will get a sense of where we stand re the sophistication of the models used to predict storm behavior. Get some notion of the likelihood of large storms going forward, a look at how some places have addressed the surge problem in the past, and pick up a couple of mouthfuls of terminology. You will learn some things that you did not expect to learn. See, for example, the continuing impact of glacial melting from the last ice age on the elevation of distant real estate, or the difference in the inner works between a tropical cyclone (A hurricane to you and me) and an extratropical cyclone (usually a winter storm) . You will learn of cyclogenesis (not a retread band), geostrophic wind (no, it’s not what happens when Gaea ingests too many beans), the significance of the difference between air and water temperature in cyclone formation, a surprising greenhouse gas, a startling revelation about one impact of the Clean Air Act, and enough large-scale weather oscillations and cycles to fill a dreidel factory and the Tour de France. Sobel is also very direct in addressing climate-change denial, decrying political positioning that ignores hard science in favor of ideology, and throwing some light on unscrupulous deniers of many things scientific at the behest of their corporate paymasters.

Storm Surge is not a fast read. My ARE includes 269 pps of text, exclusive of follow-on materials like the index, notes et al. But it reads more like twice that. Unless you are gifted at the art of speed-reading, it will take a while to get through this one. Sobel is an academic, not a popular science writer, per se, and while he is attempting to reach a mass audience with Storm Surge, his writing retains enough scientific complexity in spots to make this a slow go for many readers. The volume of information which seems to rise at times to a point of inundation, soon recedes. But when he steps away from the chalkboard a bit he does an excellent job of informing us about the impact of Hurricane, sorry, Extratropical Cyclone, Sandy, and pointing out the implications of that storm for the future. Sobel’s writing is fluid, fast and informative when he addresses political and infrastructure concerns. He addresses what we might expect going forward, and is up front about just how much we do not know, both in terms of understanding the underlying science of storm formation and the potential impacts of warming, but on the limitations of existing storm/weather/climate computer models.

We do not get very much of a sense of the author himself, other than his obvious meteorological cred. He seems like someone committed to truth-telling and basing societal decisions on facts instead of BS, and I guess we do not really need to know much more than that. This story is about the storm, the science, the history, and not about him, so it seems reasonable to have kept his personal experience mostly in the background. That said, he is a pretty good leader to have on this particular bit of discovery.

I have one gripe in particular. In Chapter 14, Sobel writes about the meteorological consensus that a significant surge was heading toward the city. Both the head of the MTA, Joe Lhotta, and the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, essentially pooh-poohed the risk from Sandy despite this information. It was pretty clear to anyone with a single political gray cell that the mayor, who had been criticized when his preparations for Hurricane Irene turned out to be unnecessary when Irene chose to do her damage elsewhere, was averse to taking the chance that he might again be criticized. The decision was pure politics, and not at all the result one might have hoped for from a mayor who liked to portray himself as more of a technocrat than a politician. Sobel prefers to believe that the mayor was put off his guard by the National Hurricane Service, which because of its rules, was no longer allowed to refer to Sandy as a hurricane after it transitioned to an extratropical cyclone. The mayor, who, is by all accounts a pretty bright guy, somehow did not read the entire report, and acted based on the absence of the word “hurricane.” I think Sobel is giving Bloomberg too much credit here.

Surges combine with relative sea level and tides to cause more or less damage. In Sandy, the tide was high. In coming years, the rising oceans will boost the damage caused by storms by a full category or even two simply because the base water level begins at a higher point. Much more needs to be learned, and Sobel is doing his part on the research end of things. In the meantime, his book, Storm Surge, aims to raise our knowledge level about this serious threat, before the threat washes us all away.

Review posted – 12/12/14

Publication date – 10/16/14

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Seems fitting that this book is published by the “Harper Wave” imprint of HarperCollins

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A list of Sobel’s publications – from Columbia

Neil DeGrasse Tyson in conversation with Sobel about climate change

A Sobel article in ClimateCentral.org - How Hurricane Sandy Can Become a ‘Frankenstorm’ - from October 26, 2012 – before landfall

From Earth Magazine - A hurricane by any other name: How Sandy changed the way we issue storm warnings
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Reading Progress

November 10, 2014 – Started Reading
November 10, 2014 – Shelved
December 10, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Nicole~ (new)

Nicole~ Very compelling review and thanks for the great links, Will.


Will Byrnes Thanks, Nicole


message 3: by Caroline (last edited Feb 13, 2015 01:11AM) (new)

Caroline Loved your description of your post Hurricane Sandy drive from Brooklyn. Very scary. In fact I find the whole subject of wild weather pretty scary.... We are so very, very small in the face of nature.


message 4: by Caroline (last edited Mar 15, 2015 01:43AM) (new)

Caroline I have seen several reviews of yours today that I have in the past read and commented upon positively - but ludicrously I notice I appear not to have *liked* them. I KNOW I liked them. What is going on? Please take as read that every time I leave a positive comment on your stream I will have liked the review concerned. Feel free to tap me on the shoulder and ask me to come back and do the likes again if they are missing. Amazon appears to be eating them :O(


message 5: by Adam (new)

Adam What a timely read with Harvey and now Irma due to warmer sea waters.


Will Byrnes Scary stuff. Science can inform us of the realities of the warming planet, but only politics and sanity can lead us to better preparation.


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