Myth: Hurricanes induce labor
Hurricane Sandy's potency came in part from the storm’s unusually low barometric pressure, which in theory could cause a pregnant woman’s amniotic sac to break—inducing labor.
The claim isn't new (see this 1985 study in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine), but it is contentious. In 2007 a study in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics suggested that deliveries increase on days with a marked change in barometric pressure. A 2005 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, however, found no relationship between atmospheric pressure and birthrate.
Although the jury may be out on whether hurricanes can induce labor, there are more obvious (and scientifically defensible) worries about hurricanes and pregnant women. Stress is a big one, so is dehydration. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a fact sheet on disaster preparedness for expectant mothers that touches on a few of these points. —Daisy Yuhas
Myth: The full moon caused a dramatic rise in Sandy's storm surge
The moon has a profound effect upon the world's oceans. Its gravitational tug pushes and pulls large bodies of water, and when the moon is full, it's also at a position in its monthly orbit to be at its strongest.
So it was unlucky, then, that Sandy made landfall during a full moon—when the sun, moon and Earth align to produce the strongest gravitational effect on the tides. This combined force, aka spring tide (which also occurs during a new moon) altered tidal patterns, making high tides higher and adding to an already deadly storm surge.
This isn't a myth, but it's also gotten quite a bit of unwarranted hype. The increase in water level was probably only a few centimeters—enough to make only a small difference compared with the magnitude of the tidal surge created by the storm. —Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
Myth: You should've kept your windows open during Sandy
There's an urban legend that suggests keeping windows shut during a hurricane causes pressure to build up in a home until the building's roof pops off. By this logic, you should open your window just a tad to equalize pressure.
It's true that as hurricanes move into an area, atmospheric pressure can plummet by nearly 10 percent, raising the relative indoor pressure. Such a sudden drop may cause problems.
"It could basically blow out your windows," says Rice University hydrologist Philip Bedient. "It happens all the time."
However, Bedient still takes issue with this advice. Opening your window may help equalize pressure, but allowing 145-kilometer-per-hour winds into your home presents other risks, and it isn't the best strategy. —Daisy Yuhas
Myth: Birds usually don't survive big storms
Birds are sometimes blown astray, but many apparently have a coping strategy. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the habitat of breeding colonies in Louisiana's Pearl River Basin, for instance, but bird numbers held steady, researchers noted in the journal Forest Ecology and Management. Some birds are especially adept: Scientists at the College of William & Mary Center for Conservation Biology tracked a migratory shorebird, a whimbrel, as it flew through Hurricane Irene in 2011. —Marissa Fessenden
Myth: Sandy was a normal hurricane
Hurricane Sandy had an asymmetrical wind field, which means its most powerful winds were located in its left-rear quadrant, making it anything but normal. Most storms of Sandy's caliber are strongest in the front, right quadrant.
What's interesting about the storm is it underwent an extratropical transition during the storm, says Forrest Masters, a wind engineer at the University of Florida. "Sandy's a slightly different animal than we've been looking at in the past."
This transformation made it difficult for Masters's team to track the storm as it headed toward their southern New Jersey base. It also means that when Sandy first made landfall, east coast residents only experienced partial wind load and might have misjudged the severity of the storm. —Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
Myth: Sandy hit the U.S. Northeast as a hurricane
Perhaps the greatest myth of all is that Sandy was a hurricane for its entire journey up the U.S. eastern seaboard. There's no doubt that the storm packed a punch, but the National Hurricane Center downgraded it from hurricane to "tropical storm" on Monday, October 29.
Why the switch? The center uses a sliding scale called Saffir–Simpson to categorize hurricanes. The scale is based solely on wind speed. So when Sandy's wind velocity decreased, the storm also lost its hurricane status.
The lesser label presents a communications problem for scientists who study storm surges and for public officials who have to make evacuation decisions for entire populations because of flooding. The demotion from hurricane to tropical storm does not make the event any less deadly, says Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University.
"We have plenty of examples of lower category storms that cause a greater level of damage and higher category storms that cause a lower level of damage," he says.
The mismatch between a storm's status and the damage it can inflict is a consequence of a gradual increase in the size and intensity of storms overall, says Rice's Bedient. As storms grow larger and more intense, their impacts might have outgrown the Saffir–Simpson scale. "We're getting these really huge storms," he adds. "They can have enormous storm surge effects compared to what we saw back in the '50s and '60s."
The meteorological community has proposed other ways of measuring hurricanes, but some researchers stand in staunch support of Saffir–Simpson. Scientific American previously covered the debate. —Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato