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Escape from New York

by Donald Prothero, Aug 31 2011

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray

—Robert Burns
To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, 1785

Last week I was in New York City, working on the incredible fossils stored at the American Museum of Natural History, as part of a long-planned museum-hopping tour to see important specimens in New York, Philadelphia, Yale, Harvard, Amherst, and then down to the University of Florida Museum before returning home. I’m on sabbatical, and this research reviewing the evolution of North American peccaries or javelinas (pig-like creatures mainly found in Latin America, but only distantly related to true pigs of the Old World) is the focus of my sabbatical this fall. The trip itself was scheduled over six months ago, since it was the only time I could get away before the kids go back to school and my wife resumes teaching on Labor Day weekend. I flew in on Sunday night, Aug. 21, and was filled with flashbacks of my wonderful six years there as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and the American Museum (1976-1982). Back then, as a young grad student,  I was footloose and fancy free (although poor) and enjoyed the opera (day of performance standing-room ticket was all I could afford), jazz in the Village, half-price Broadway show tickets at TKTS, all the while working like a maniac on those incredible fossils to publish enough research before I finished my doctorate, in order to have a small chance at a job. (Fewer than 20% of Ph.D.’s in vertebrate paleontology get a decent job in a related field).

For the first four days, the weather was great (low 80s and not too humid, very unusual for New York in August), and I was getting a lot of research done. I was also reveling in the sounds and sights and smells of Manhattan, and even the steam-bath humidity of the subway tunnels and the frequent arguments that break out in the subways didn’t bother me. I’d seen a lot of them in 6 years of living there, especially in the pre-Guiliani days when the city was a lot dirtier and more dangerous, and bums harassed you much more aggressively. It was great to see the amazing exhibits at the American Museum again, stroll around the Park and seeing the sights of Downtown again, or go people-watching along Broadway or Columbus on the Upper West Side. I visited my old building on West 87th just off Riverside (I once had a tiny rent-controlled fourth-floor walkup in a brownstone that cost me only $160/month in 1978, now worth many thousands a month), hung out at Lincoln Center (no time for a concert, and they’re not performing in August anyway), and walked past my favorite haunts on Broadway. It was fun to rediscover the foods, too: a Nathan’s Famous hot dog or a REAL New York bagel and schmear in a genuine Jewish deli, savor the delicious smells at Zabars, or have a slice or two at Ray’s Pizzeria. I walked past the Dakota building where John Lennon was murdered (I was just a few blocks away that night in 1980). I tried to find the Blarney Castle, an Irish bar on 72nd St. where I once took a final exam over pitchers of beer in a seminar taught by Niles Eldredge, but it had changed names and ownership.

High above the Earth from aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Ron Garan snapped this image of Hurricane Irene as it passed over the Caribbean on Aug. 22, 2011.

High above the Earth from aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Ron Garan snapped this image of Hurricane Irene as it passed over the Caribbean on Aug. 22, 2011. Even though it was only a Category 1 storm, it covered an area the size of Europe (Photo credit: NASA)

But by Wednesday I was getting worried about the reports of Hurricane Irene and what it would do to New York, and by Thursday night the reports of the hurricane forced me to cancel my swing through New England and Florida, and rebook my JetBlue flight back on Saturday night. It was clear that the storm would make it impossible to get to those New England museums on Monday or Tuesday, let alone expect the collections managers to show up and help me out. My long-planned museum tour would have to be postponed, and I’d have to spend more scarce grant money trying to do it all over again before my sabbatical ended.

Then things started to get really crazy. I came into the Paleontology department office first thing Friday morning, and the staff there (all long-time New Yorkers) were hearing news that the City that Never Sleeps would shut down completely by Saturday afternoon, not just Sunday when the storm hit. Suddenly it was apparent that my Saturday night flight was unrealistic, as were my plans to give a guest lecture and record a podcast with NYC Skeptics on Saturday. Instead of wrapping up the remaining pieces of my peccary research before moving on, I had to spend time unsuccessfully trying to reschedule my JetBlue flight for an earlier time. Every flight was already all sold out, so I’d have to eat the cost of that ticket, plus spend hundreds more finding any plane ticket home out of the NYC metro area. The best I could do was a flight out of Newark that evening, which meant leaving the Museum immediately. I raced to catch the C train subway down to Penn Station to catch the LIRR to my friend’s place out in Nassau County (where I was staying to avoid the $200 or more a night hotels in Manhattan). I ran to his place and packed and caught the next LIRR back to Penn Station. I was hoping to use NJ Transit trains to Newark, but the time window was too tight for my 6:30 flight, so I had to spend $80 on a cab to make sure I didn’t miss it.

By this time, insanity was everywhere. Friday afternoon rush out of Manhattan is always bad but it was compounded by all the panicky drivers fleeing through the tunnels before the hurricane flooded them all. Frantic drivers were even ruder and more dangerous than usual (for a town full of truly crazy cabs and other bad drivers), as were all the panicked passengers in Penn Station trying to get any train out of town. Once I reached the airport, it was the usual hassle (slow security lines, and I was even singled out of random screening). At the gate, the smell of desperation was palpable as people were trying to get whatever flight they could to anywhere off the East Coast, since flight cancellations were happening already, 48 hours before the storm was due.

Fortunately, I’d already gotten a confirmed reservation and boarding passes online, so I needed only a seat assignment, and we all packed into the full flight to Detroit. After that short hop, the Detroit airport was a very different experience: no threats of storms there, plus it was already late at night. My red-eye to LAX finally boarded, and I was crammed into a tiny aisle seat with screaming babies on all sides for the 5-hour flight. I finally landed at LAX, wandered through all the construction in Terminal 6 for a long time until I found my bag, then there were the usual long delays waiting for SuperShuttle at 1:30 in the morning, so when I finally reached home and dropped into bed, I had been traveling for nearly 24 hours straight and gotten almost no sleep since Thursday night. After I finally caught up on some of my lost sleep and the jet lag, Saturday was bright and sunny in LA, although we’ve had nearly a week of weather over 100°F and our heat wave is not done yet.

Now, as I watch the TV coverage of the storm, I realize how lucky I was to get out at all, and only to have to spend a few hundred dollars to change plans. I was on almost the last flight out, and my friends and students who had flights on Saturday had to remain refugees with the people they had stayed with. Yet it appears that the East Coast dodged a bullet, with only a handful of deaths, although the flooding, downed power lines, washed out roads, and other damage will certainly total in the millions when it is all over. But it could have been MUCH worse, given how vulnerable NYC is if those hurricane-force winds had really spawned tornadoes in the concrete canyons, or the flooding of the city had taken out the subway and train and auto tunnels that are its lifeline. Of course, we’ll hear the usual griping from people who didn’t take the warnings seriously and didn’t think the storm was that bad. But the last major hurricane to hit the Northeast was Gloria back in 1985 which killed 11 people and caused $900 million in damage in 1985 dollars. Most Northeasterners are not old enough to remember it from 25 years ago. Hurricane Irene was not a Category 4 like Gloria was, but it was much bigger in size (it spanned an area the size of Europe) and dropped a LOT more rain on already saturated ground from a record wet summer. Before Gloria, there had been only 4 hurricanes within 75 miles of New York City since 1851.

But some people who ignored the warnings drowned or were hit by trees or electrocuted when they touched downed power lines. More candidates for the Darwin Awards, I guess. Even more annoying was the persistent Big Apple bias of the reporting. All weekend it was “New York, New York, New York” even though the storm was much worse in the Carolinas, Virginia, DC and Philadelphia. But NYC is still the “Media Capital” and (except for CNN in Atlanta) most news still comes from there.

So why should we care about Hurricane Irene, other than its effects in the regions it hit? Ever since Katrina, people have been wondering about how hurricanes and how climate change might affect them. Hurricane Irene is truly unusual, since the East Coast has not been hit by a storm this big in recent history. As Bill McKibben writes in his post:

Irene has a middle name and it’s Global Warming…Irene is just the kind of hurricane one might expect to become more common due to global warming. It’s rare for such a large, powerful hurricane to maintain its strength beyond the Carolinas, meteorologist Jeff Masters tells McKibben, because wind shear and/or cool seawater normally wear down any tropical storms that make it that far. Wind shear could still disrupt Irene, but as McKibben writes, “ocean temperatures won’t.” Sea-surface temperatures in Irene’s path are now about 1 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit above average, “which will make it easier for Irene to maintain its strength much farther to the north than a hurricane usually can,” Masters explains.

As I discuss in my new book, Catastrophes!, what worries scientists most about Katrina and subsequent hurricanes is that the 2005 season has been part of a long-term trend in more and more intense hurricanes over the past 20 years. 2005 broke the record held by the previous worst season on record: 2004. The number of Category 4 and 5 storms between 1990 and 2006 has increased dramatically compared to the interval between 1975-1989 (Curry and Holland, 2005). Emanuel (2005) showed that the power of the most recent hurricanes (as measured by wind speed and duration) has jumped 50% since 1970. Nearly all the most destructive hurricane seasons on record have happened in the past 20 years, with many of the years in the 2000s at or near record levels of major hurricanes. The ranking of seasons with the most major hurricanes has 2005, 1999, 1996, and 1994 in their top five. Of the seasons with the most named tropical storms in the Atlantic, the years 1995, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008 are all in top ten list, and only two years (1933, 1936) on the top ten list were before 1969. Only 2002 and 2006 have failed to make the list of the most named tropical storms in this decade. The 2009 season started late but it had a record 7 named storms in August, and finished with 20 storms and 8 hurricanes altogether.  2010 was the warmest year on record with many hurricanes that mostly stayed at sea. As I write this, it’s too early to tell whether 2011 will also make the top ten list, although the first seven months of 2011 had some the warmest sea-surface temperatures since 1880.

One of the criticisms of efforts to identify whether hurricanes have become worse in recent years is the lack of a detailed historical record. Other than a few great storms of past centuries, there are almost no reliable historical records of hurricanes before 1900. But a recent study (Mann et al., 2009) used cores taken from seven coastal locations (lagoons, lakes, barrier islands) on the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. plus one site in Puerto Rico, and identified the sandy storm layers, and dated them by radiocarbon methods. From this, they obtained a historical record of almost a thousand years of hurricane seasons on the Atlantic. They found that the last two decades have indeed had the highest number of hurricanes, averaging 17 per year, more than twice the value of any previous decade. The last time hurricanes were this frequent was during the Medieval Warm Period.

Not surprisingly, this information has been grist for the mill in the debate over climate change. There is no dispute that the sea surface temperatures in the tropical oceans have warmed dramatically. It makes sense that warmer oceans, which produce hurricanes in the first place, would produce more of them and more intense storms. There are plenty of top scientists who argue that the connection is real (e.g., Curry and Holland, 2005; Emanuel 2005; Webster et al., 2005), and most of these articles have been published in the top-of-the-line, most stringently reviewed scientific journals such as Science and Nature. But as usual, the climate denialists are not convinced. Part of the problem is that this is still a short-term trend, since the data for both oceanic temperatures and hurricane velocities do not go back very far, so it is hard to establish whether such a correlation has happened in the past. Ironically, some of the scholars who have documented this increase in hurricane intensity,  such as Kerry Immanuel, are (or at least were) Republicans. They are appalled by the climate-denialism that is almost a GOP plank now.

And a final irony: the talk I was supposed to give to the NYC Skeptics on Saturday was on my new book “Catastrophes!” On top of that, earlier that week I’d experienced the Virginia earthquake and watched the bookshelves in the 10th floor Osborn Library sway back and forth. So now I must reschedule my New York-New England-Florida trip for November or December, and make up the canceled NYC Skeptics lecture. Maybe we’ll have a blizzard, just for the occasion…


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12 Responses to “Escape from New York”

  1. Mark O'Leary says:

    Enjoyment of this article was marred by the use of a “translation” of Burns. The correct citation is:

    “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
    Gang aft agley….”

    This is not some foreign language. It is English. The Broad Scots sub-dialect favored by Burns was a deliberate aesthetic choice by the poet, who was equally at home writing in everything from standard English to Scots Gaelic if he chose. Altering the text because some readers find the original too challenging is comparable to rounding the value of Pi to “about three.”

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Sorry about that. I was tempted to quote it in the original Scottish, but I wasn’t sure whether most readers could handle it. My background is Welsh and Irish, myself, but I wouldn’t try to spring any Welsh on our readers, either!

  2. Greg Martinez says:

    Hope you enjoy your visit to Gainesville when you finally make it. The weather will be much better in November/December than it is now (we have had heat indexes in the 100′s for almost a month now). The fossils at the museum are terrific, so you should find the trip quite rewarding.

  3. Max says:

    Apparently, the earthquake may have exceeded the design specs of Virginia’s North Anna nuclear power plants, and Irene would have exceeded New Jersey’s Oyster Creek specs had it remained category 2 or 3.

  4. David H. says:

    Technically, it’s “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” The last line could use “”go oft astray” (or even “awry”) and still preserve the meter and the (imperfect) rhyme.

  5. CountryGirl says:

    It is rare for such a large, powerful hurricane to maintain its strength beyond the Carolinas. It occurred during the 1950’s and was a result of exactly the same conditions we see today; that is a cool Pacific ocean and a warm Atlantic ocean. Was it global warming in the 50’s? These cyclical hurricanes reaching far North of the Carolinas can be found in the historical record of early European settlers to New York and New England in the 1600’s, 1700s and 1800’s. Was it global warming then?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      No, the point is that the hurricane seasons of the past 15 years have consistently had more powerful storms than in any time in human history, and THAT seems to be related to global warming. Like the weather, individual storms can do many different things, and in any given year we might get a storm like Irene, AGW or not. But the long-term climatic trend is what is so worrying. Those storms of the past might act somewhat like Irene, but the prediction is that there will be many more of them and stronger ones than in any time in the past–and this hurricane season is still ongoing.

  6. MadScientist says:

    I still hear the “difficult if not impossible to prove more numerous and more powerful storms” line from the modelers, which is why modelers get me so angry. We can’t claim “difficult if not impossible” on the one hand and “global warming makes hurricanes like Irene”.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      The studies I cited above are empirical evidence, not models, of how many more intense storms we have been having (NOT the total number–that is not being claimed). That’s why a lot of climate scientists consider the link well established. NOTHING is “proved” in science, only in math and logic–and science deniers keep demanding “absolute proof” when no scientist will use those terms.