Image: NASA

The Northeastern United States is still recovering in the wake of both the reality of Hurricane Sandy and the accompanying media attention. And while Harvard students celebrate the benevolent storm that whimpered into the Boston area bearing a day off from school, other areas were not so lucky.

David Biello of Scientific American wrote a comprehensive article on the science behind the flooding that caused an estimated $20 billion in damage in metro New York and New Jersey. The “storm surge,” or a massive rise of water level on the coast, was the result of air pressure changes in the offshore cyclone. Air pressure is highest at the edges of the storm and lowest at the center; it’s at this low pressure center where the sea level rises beneath the storm. When the center of the storm hit land, it brought the water with it, smashing into the coast of New Jersey with the effects resonating through New York City.

The topology of the area didn’t help matters. According to the article, the coast surrounding New York Harbor acted as a funnel where incoming water built up, inevitably flooding the surrounding area.

Scarily, the flooding could have been much worse.

“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.

Climate change to blame?

In this day and age, no weather-related disaster can go without the obvious question: did we create this with our greenhouse gases? Is global warming to blame?

The New York Times tackled the subject in this article by Justin Gillis. The jury is still out among climate scientists, who don’t know for sure whether global warming played a role in causing or worsening Hurricane Sandy.

However, the most devastating result of Sandy—the flooding from the storm surge—was almost certainly aggravated by the general rise in sea level over decades, the result of melting of glacial ice due to greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, the storm itself could have been influenced by global warming. According to the article, a warmer atmosphere can fuel more powerful storms by storing water vapor, and scientists say that the average intensity of storms is likely to rise with the warming climate.

So it does look like our carbon footprint is probably in part to blame for the magnitude of the flooding. Ouch.

NYC’s other residents: the rats

With many of NYC’s underground tunnels entirely submerged, humans certainly weren’t the only ones affected. What happened to the rats?

In a fascinating scrutiny, Bora Zivkovic of Scientific American tackles the fate of NYC’s infamous underground guests. The city has a truly massive rat population, numbering up to 32 million in some estimates. But even though rats are very strong swimmers and divers (check out this terrifying video of a rat swimming like a fish), the sheer magnitude and downward force of the flooding is likely to have sent many rats to a watery grave.

However, taking into account many factors such as the extent of the flooding, potential escape routes to the surface, and even social hierarchy, Zivkovic comes to the conclusion that most of the rats probably survived. While some fed-up apartment residents in NYC might disagree that this is good news, it would have been a shame if the storm had wiped out the rats. We can all take comfort in the resiliency of our furry friends.

Best wishes to all the people of New York and other affected areas as they rebuild and recover from the storm!