Crowdsourced science unravels evolution of Hurricane Sandy

As Hurricane Sandy moved across the northeastern US in October 2012, online volunteers were collecting rainwater samples that could help lead to better weather models and storm forecasts.

Researchers at the University of Utah rallied volunteers by alerting people on science email lists, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and crowdsourcing sites. They also set up a blog site — WaterIsotopes.org —  to provide instructions and updates to participants.

The result was 685 rainwater samples collected by more than 125 volunteers from North Carolina to Indiana to Canada. After receiving the samples, researchers at the university analyzed the water to measure the concentrations of different hydrogen and oxygen isotopes. The resulting data helped to identify a “fingerprint” of water sources, transport and rainout, which measures how quickly precipitation removes certain particles from the atmosphere.

“During Sandy, we used crowdsourcing to obtain an unprecedented collection of hurricane rain waters,” said Gabriel Bowen, associate professor of geology and geophysics, who launched the sampling effort. “By taking advantage of data and samples gathered from residents on the ground, we were able to pinpoint where and when key features of the storm system developed and how they evolved, allowing us to develop a more complete picture of the storm.”

Bowen continued, “Sandy left a distinctive isotopic signature in rain collected from the mid-Atlantic up into in New England that shows how a dry cold front originating out of the Midwest joined with Sandy — which developed from a tropical wave over warm water in the Caribbean — and likely prolonged and expanded the storm.”

Hurricane Sandy, also known as Superstorm Sandy, led to the deaths of nearly 300 people in seven countries, and caused more than $65 billion in damage.

“As the climate changes in the 21st century, there is a possibility that more hurricanes will stray farther north along the eastern seaboard, like Sandy did,” said Stephen Good, a postdoctoral fellow in geology and geophysics at the University of Utah, and lead author on the study. “It therefore becomes increasingly important to better understand the processes at work in these large storm systems.”

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