Sandy and the Blocked High

“In the moment of place, time is both a past remembered and the future’s constant becoming. With immersion, the sun’s a clock, so too when photographing New England I avoided the suffocation of placing four room corners around my head each night. It’s an instinctive way to decide where to go and what to look for, and even as that strangely became more difficult, I could feel a first intimidation of climate change.”

And that was more than 15 years ago.

Now that Associate v. – the Gallery at Lake Hopatcong is up and running again it’s no longer a mere intimidation. And that the four corners held is appreciated.


Oh, some thirty years ago I decided to retrace the Vikings’ trail north from my home near Cape Cod. A ferry here, a ferry there, then a week-long coastal steamer delivering supplies up the coast to Nain provided a platform to photograph an endless parade of icebergs floating south on the cold Labrador current. The coast more resembled the alpine zone of Mt. Washington. Appalachian terminus. Cool. Inuit people added to the sense of enduring place. As there was no way to continue without private charter I stayed a while in an exposed camp a respectful distance from the settlement with limitless view of sea and peak, until the colors, waves, and folds of an aurora filled the entire sky to warn that winter comes quickly. And then a not so coincidental visit from an elder who with small English allowed me to volunteer just what I had in mind.

Northern hemisphere weather and storms are shaped by the fluctuations of the jet stream’s ridges and troughs. In the region of that camp formation of the Greenland high is usual. What may be unusual is that in October of this year a giant high pressure ridge stubbornly parked itself there instead of moving along. Research by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers indicates that may be related to the unprecedented Arctic sea ice loss this year – half the size of the U.S. As solar heat absorbing open water instead of the reflective white helps draw the jet stream north increased amplitude slows the waves down. Have you noticed that bad weather seems to hang on for days now, rather than the old if you don’t like it just wait a minute? I believe the research.

Not long after the trip to Labrador I decided to go to Hudson’s Bay to see where the dangerous deep freeze that follows a winter front comes from to blast the northwest elevations of the Presidentials. A train, another, and even the Polar Bear Express over the black spruce taiga of the vast low Canadian shield to Moosonee, Great Muskeg of the Cree, then a rented canoe down the Moose River provided a James Bay view north to the Hudson. If you like, click the Baie James Bay link to the right.


The jet stream can farther steer that Hudson cold to a Florida citrus frost. Climate change is about extremes. A fall tropical depression is not unusual but the energy of warm seas can help draw its strength northward. Sea temperatures off the East Coast were the highest on record this year. When I saw a map showing a thin band in red nine degrees warmer off the Jersey shore, I thought uh-oh. We saw the lowest pressure ever recorded and a storm approaching a thousand miles wide! And that Greenland high just sat there blocking the usual escape to wither somewhere over the Atlantic on the way to England. Now add the energy of the Arctic air jet stream dip to the west, an early season nor’easter, and the new hybrid storm hooked a wicked left to cream the coast. Pretty perfect from Sandy’s point of view.

Lake Hopatcong

The Highlands are well-rounded remnants of an ancient range, even older than the Appalachians. Lake Hopatcong, once “Jewel of the Highlands” is the state’s largest lake. At an elevation of nearly 1000 feet it had once served as a water source for the Morris Canal linking the Hudson to the Delaware. Hotel grounds of the turn of the twentieth century were developed into the camps now homes in the twenty-first. A wind rising hundreds of miles offshore coming up the Atlantic piedmont would gather a bit again over the lake to run smack into Brooklin Mountain crowding its west shore. We did pretty well until about 7 PM. After hours of the roaring whoosh there seemed almost a pause followed by an impact you could more feel than hear beneath the din. Perhaps a slight change in wind direction. The lights went out. We benefit in the summer shade of a mature canopy and the next day’s inspection showed most trees had fallen in the same direction. The contours rising from the lake often funneled a swath of destruction. A lot of oak down but the ash seemed particularly vulnerable. The thin soils of the ledge don’t help, but too often more a small rootball was revealed rather than the raised platform. Salt? Trunks of near two foot diameter violently broken might reveal a hollow rotten core. Our streets are densely packed, in fact they’re named Trails, and the 50 year old, now over-loaded utility poles easily snap. The wind hit like a bomb. I would estimate up to 25% tree loss and close to that for the poles. With wires the streets were all impassable, sometimes the skeletons of cross-barred pole tops suspended just above the road. It was remarkable that more of the trees had not fallen on houses. Thankfully, there were no deaths locally. And the 85 foot Norway spruce in the back yard, a probable gift of the hotel era, survived if with major thinning.

The deep pull of arctic air to the west yet managed to bring in a few inches of snow to add to the cold misery. But as you understand, neighbors helped each other out, a lot, and with the comfort of my wood stove too, we got through the rest. Get used to it? A new normal? A Halloween snowstorm last year before trees lost their foliage brought power outage. A shattering ice storm crash behind the house took out 5 poles October a couple years before that. No, this is only the beginning. Tornados, floods, the drought, forest fires around the country this year too. Damage estimates for Sandy maybe $50 billion.

So how do you like your global warming now?




About Paul Eric

photographer, printmaker, and writer, environment
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