Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Could Earl Surprise The East Coast With The Landstrike Scenario?

In Landstrike (the Curmudgeon's hurricane novel), fictional hurricane Nicole forms out of a tropical wave as it passes the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa, and eventually strikes New York City as a major hurricane, devastating a region with 25 million people in it.

Could Earl follow the Landstrike scenario? The answer is yes, but it probably will be a near miss instead.

Earl's path has been similar to that of fictional Nicole, but just a little further to the east. In Landstrike, Nicole's powerful eye just brushes by Cape Hatteras, N.C., then, carried by the jet stream, races up the coast and turns right up the Hudson River, delivering a catastrophic storm surge into New York City.

Earl, too, is expected to brush by N.C.'s outer banks, but curve away from New York before turning back to the west and slamming northern New England or Nova Scotia.

But forecasting the track of these storms is tricky. In Landstrike, officials at the National Hurricane Center furiosly debate whether to issue a hurricane warning to New York. One faction believes the storm will curve out to sea, as they usually do. The other believes the weather system that's supposed to push Nicole out to sea will arrive too late.

That very debate may be going on now at the NHC. Weather models forecast that a powerful low pressure system will arrive just in time to bounce Earl away from the coast, but not enough to keep it out of Maine or Nova Scotia. Timing is everything, however. If that low pressure system slows down just a little bit, New York--or maybe more likely, Boston--could get a direct hit.
In fact, one widely used computer model (NGFDL) has Earl striking right around Providence/Boston, while others have it moving a further to the east. Trying to make sense of these conflicting computer models is one of the main challenges for human hurricane forecasters.

One of the main points of Landstrike was that forecasting the landfall of hurricanes along the U.S. Atlantic coastline is far more difficult than on the Gulf Coast. The angle at which storms approach the East Coast, and their typically greater speed, give residents of Atlantic communities much less time to prepare. (Forecasters were able to predict Hurricane Katrina's landfall near New Orleans nearly four days in advance--not that New Orleanians took advantage of the notice.)

If Earl does take a slightly more westerly turn, it's likely that the communities most directly affected will have, at most, 36 hours notice, and even then the likely target area will be huge, containing many millions of people. Evacuation, other than from literally beachfront communities, is not a viable option (imagine trying to evacuate New York or Boston on 36 hours notice).

Keep an eye on Earl. Hurricanes like this have a habit of surprising us in real life, not just in entertaining fiction!

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