The Science behind Superstorm Sandy’s Storm Surge

A report on superstorm Sandy from the Scientific American.

Throughout the New York metropolitan region and farther south in New Jersey, Sandy's hurricane-force winds brought down trees and power lines, causing an estimated $20 billion or more in damage. But the more than 74-mile-per-hour winds’ most enduring impact may have been from the massive swell of water they pushed atop land, obliterating beaches, drowning boardwalks, filling subway tunnels, destroying electrical infrastructure and wrecking lives.

 Although it may be hard to believe, the event could have been even more damaging. "This was not the worst case," says storm surge specialist Jamie Rhome of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) at the U.S.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "A worst case would have been a stronger storm with the exact same track" that also came ashore at the same time as high tide. "That would have produced even more flooding," he adds.

Yet, Superstorm Sandy's massive flooding is already unprecedented in recent decades. According to experts, however, it is only going to become more likely in coming decades, thanks to a combination of local geography, vulnerable coastal development and already-happening sea-level rise as a result of climate change. In the future, it will not take a frankenstorm like Sandy to inundate the region. Given that reality, the best defense may be to accept the inevitability of flooding and prepare infrastructure to withstand it, as is common in other regions more historically prone to storm surge flooding.