Iterations of Hurricane Sandy

HS Formula 1

Hurricane Sandy’s Fractalscape Renders


But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

A pervasive side effect of working with fractal art is that one begins to develop a heightened sense of fractal pattern recognition. Self-similar forms and recursive elements seem to oftentimes loiter around the margins of one’s visual experience. Without warning, recursive replications of oneself emerge suddenly in the three-fold mirror at a clothing store. Or a glimpse out the window, after opening the shade on a cold winter’s morning, discloses a grove of frost-encrusted trees. Or a metal bicycle rack glinting with sunlight in peripheral vision. Or those half-circles of filtered light unabashedly dancing under a tree during an eclipse.

You can’t take a airplane flight and not notice the repeating fractal patterns of city blocks and rural fields — of rippling light pools in parking lots at night. In my last post, examining a post-processed photo of Mars, I noticed the fern shapes gouged out of a crater by antediluvian flowing water. This week, I saw plenty of coursing water in the deluge of photos soaking the Internet as Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the eastern coast of the United States. I felt the familiar nagging jolts of fractal pattern recognition as I scanned wave after wave of photographic evidence of the storm’s destructive power. The more I deep zoomed by seeking out newer photos — photos swamping the Web from numerous cell phones or news feeds and photo floodgates opened from the digital immediacy of Facebook and Twitter — the more I found fractal designs in the storm pics became unmistakable, almost algorithmic.

Fractal forms are no surprise in nature; they are instead an everyday experience. Trees. Clouds. Lightning. Mountains. Even our own nervous system, as Prufrock notes. But I was really surprised by how many fractals embedded in photos I witnessed in the aftermath of this particular force of nature. For all her bluster and cruelty, Hurricane Sandy was a gifted fractal artist. You can see an astonishing attention to fractal-like detail in many of her annihilative iterations.

Just a posting note before we start our flyover of the fractalized damage. I found all of these images on Google Image searches of "hurricane sandy photos." Some of the photos were not of an appreciably higher resolution than what you see here on OT. Quite a few others washed in for a few brief hours, then receded from listings as the surging digital tide went back out. I have linked some images to sources when, while surfing in my private rescue boat, I was able to re-locate them. Many, however, have been swept away in cyberspace ether. If overly curious, I guess you will have to go on a hunting and gathering expedition on your own time.

"Let us go then, you and I..".


The photo above of a fleet of taxi cabs in a flooded parking lot is one of the most striking, most breathtaking shots. Here it is again from another angle

HS Formula 2 

and the fractal tropes really sally out. The self-similarity of the yellow cabs is hard to miss. Recursion occurs not only in the lines of cabs, but also because of the depth at which they are submerged in water. Indeed, this combination of repeated forms integrated with the varied level of flood waters creates a detectable fractal tension in many of these photos. Another noticeable trait in physical world fractals is the relative mix of straight (hard) and rounded (soft) lines. Arguably, hard lines tend to be predominating in much computer-generated fractal imagery, although (increasingly) there are exceptions. Quaternion and Mandelbulb renders, for example, can indeed produce softer rounded and curved shapes. Here, in the cab shots, the soft lines are evident in the car bodies, the hoods and windshields, and are also discernible in the water currents — especially where the oily film is washing in like tired breakers. In contrast, the hard lines are most detectable at the car-door sides of the taxis — particularly in the spaces or aisles between the parked queues of cabs. Here is another variation of the same theme

HS Formula 3 

but, in this shot from New York, the aisles are far wider and both recursive queues move away from our POV. Hard fractal forms/lines fill both the foreground (buildings) and the background (skyline). Note the many self-similar replications of light in this photo — the exterior building lights at the upper left, the twin mini-novas of streetlamps, the blurred checkerboard of lit windows in distant skyscrapers, and even the dark taillights of the stranded cabs. Softer forms are more indistinct: the curve of a lone streetlight pole or the reflected light from the lamp squiggling in the swift current. Here is yet another variation

HS Formula 4 

only using buses. There’s less tension and more loneliness suggested in this shot, perhaps because the water is calmer and the chassis of the buses are leaner and longer. To make matters spookier, the spectral, self-similar reflectivity of the buses suggest an afterimage residue or a ghostly phantasm. And if you found the reflected light at night from the previous NYC cab photo stirring, you’ll likely dig this photo

HS Formula 5 

where the foreground lights diffuse into a glob of soft mist nearly blotting out the hard square starlight twinkling in skyscrapers. The reflected light is more acute since the rushing water gives the illusion of recursive rapids. Straight line borders clearly frame the lit proscenium. Like the structures holding the street signs moving recursively to the left out of the frame. Like the twin wooden boardwalks until recently bookending the flooded street until the water’s rage uprooted the right boardwalk turning it into a makeshift retaining wall. In the end, though, maybe the most beguiling photo of half submerged fractally suggestible waterlogged cars was this one

HS Formula 6 

where differences in the degree of the vehicles’ immersion suggest recursion at increasing smaller scales. The SUV "bodies" are more visibly rounded than the earlier cars and buses and the iceberg effect of underwater tincture of the SUV at the far right adds substantial depth. Depth is further enhanced by the primarily hard lines of the rectangular floating (mostly wooden ) debris, including the odd recursive forms aligning like vertebrae in the shot’s lower right. What are they? Reflective oddities? Lens flare glints? Digitally funky pixel break-ups? Fog spots on the camera lens? Or, chillingly, dabs of Sandy’s artistically placed debris. Note how a few hard long lines slash through the photo — especially the sunlit area in the lower left and the wall/dock and railing/gate structures in the upper background. To up the fractility, here’s another twisted, M. C. Esherish alluvial snapshot

HS Formula 7 

of a flooded NYC subway station where the hard lines of the railing (left) and the rectangular mirrored wall/windows (right) recede from our POV. Conversely, to utterly skew perception and depth, the twin escalator/stair shapes seem to move towards us only to be deflected and elongated at the waterline by the duel distorting properties of water and light. And let’s not overlook the multiple reflections of that magnificent fractal tree dominating one-third of the image. The tree forms also bend at the waterline as well as around a background curve in the back wall.

Then again, some of Hurricane Sandy’s iterations were more idiosyncratic and unparalleled. Like this one

HS Formula 8 

where, weirdly, the rounder and softer forms are found in the furiously slamming sand. The straighter and harder lines are seen in the twin piers (or stairwells). Both soft and hard forms evidently display self-similarity and draw back recursively into the vanishing point of the beach house. Then there’s this

HS Formula 9 

showing even more retreating recursion than the previous pic with hard lines visible in its walkway, its railings (if that’s what they are), and its string of light posts (so incredibly self-similar). But it’s the snow, with its repetitive soft/round forms, that dominates the image to the point of near obliteration. The only other round forms are the string of three lights in the background. Oh. Yes. And the oddly intrusive human form — which kind of "ruins" the fractalness of the shot for me. Maybe I should have manipulated Mother Nature and Photoshopped the encroacher out of the pic. But would that be unsporting or even unnatural? Is it my place to post-process Sandy’s iterative handiwork?

I was exceedingly struck by how many torii (torus?) forms appear in photos of the storm’s devastation. Usually, Hurricane Sandy sculpted these gateway tatters from the blasted remnants of elevated highways or piers. Here

HS Formula 10 

the gateways, despite a furious assault, are still holding the line and carrying the weight of the pier on their sturdy shoulders. But other torii forms

 HS Formula 11

are battered and bruised and leave the battlefield with shoulders slumped in defeat, while others

HS Formula 12 

stand surefooted and remain defiant even as they continue to come under bombardment at the beachhead, while still others

HS Formula 13 

are spotted marching in a Trail of Tears formation along the clobbered coastline.

Finally, there was one particularly surreal and dramatic shot

HS Formula 14 

that definitively captured the adrenaline-charged, hold-on-for-dear-life, fractally meandering roller coaster ride rendered by the iterations of Hurricane Sandy.


These photos show much more than nature’s penchant for rendering fractalscapes using an Act of God for tools. The toll in lost lives and property from the storm is astronomic. By some estimates, the hurricane has left 17 million people in FEMA disaster areas and repair costs are predicted to be as much as 50 billion dollars. Here, if so inclined, are some ways you can help.