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Hurricanes

Hurricanes

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Hurricanes

Every year between June 1 and November 30 (commonly called hurricane season),h u rr ic a n es threaten
the eastern and gulf coasts of the United States, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. In other
parts of the world, the same types of storms are calledty p h oo n s orcy cl o n es. These huge storms wreak
havoc when they make landfall. They can kill thousands of people and cause billions of dollars of
property damage when they hit heavily populated areas.

In this article, we'll discuss how hurricanes form, how they move, the destruction and damage they cause,
and how hurricanes are tracked -- You'll be amazed at the power and impact of these storms!
Defining a Hurricane

According to the National Hurricane Center, "hurricane" is a name for a tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean. "Tropical cyclone" is the generic term used for low-pressure systems that develop in the tropics.

"Tropical cyclones with maximum sustained surface winds of less than 17 meters per
second (39 mph / 62.7 kph / 34 knots) are called tropical depressions. Once the tropical
cyclone reaches winds of at least 17 meters per second (m/s), it is typically called a

tropical storm and assigned a name. If winds reach 33 m/s (74 mph / 119 kph / 64 kt),
then it is called a "hurricane."
Hurricanes are defined by the following characteristics:
l
They aretr o p ic a l, meaning that they are generated in tropical
areas of the ocean near the Equator.
l

They arecy cl o n ic, meaning that their winds swirl around a
centraley e. Wind direction is counterclockwise (west to east) in
the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise (east to west) in the
Southern Hemisphere.

l
They are low-pressure systems. The eye of a hurricane is always a low-pressure area. The lowest
barometric pressures ever recorded have occurred inside hurricanes.
l
The winds swirling around the center of the storm have a sustained speed of at least 74 mph (119
kph / 64 kt).
How a Hurricane Forms

Hurricanes form in tropical regions where there is warm water (at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit / 27
degrees Celsius), moist air and converging equatorial winds. Most Atlantic hurricanes begin off the west
coast of Africa, starting as thunderstorms that move out over the warm, tropical ocean waters. A
thunderstorm reaches hurricane status in three stages:

Photo courtesy Weather.com, photographer Stuart Livingston
Destructive waves from Hurricane Opal (1995) at the State Pier in
Gulf Shores, AL
"Hurricane"

According to the National
Hurricane Center, the word
"hurricane" comes from the
name "Hurican," the
Caribbean god of evil.

l
Tropical depression - swirling clouds and rain with wind speeds of less than 38 mph (61.15 kph /
33 kt)
l
Tropical storm - wind speeds of 39 to 73 mph (54.7 to 117.5 kph / 34 to 63 kt)
l
Hurricane - wind speeds greater than 74 mph (119 kph / 64 kt)

It can take anywhere from hours to several days for a thunderstorm to develop into a hurricane. Although
the whole process of hurricane formation is not entirely understood, three events must happen for
hurricanes to form:

l
A continuing evaporation-condensation cycle of warm, humid ocean air
l
Patterns of wind characterized by converging winds at the surface and strong, uniform-speed
winds at higher altitudes
l
A difference in air pressure (pressure gradient) between the surface and high altitude
Warm, Humid Ocean Air
Warm, moist air from the ocean surface begins to rise rapidly. As this warm air rises, its water vapor
condenses to form storm clouds and droplets of rain. The condensation releases heat called latent heat of
condensation. This latent heat warms the cool air aloft, thereby causing it to rise. This rising air is

replaced by more warm, humid air from the ocean below. This cycle continues, drawing more warm, moist air into the developing storm and continuously moving heat from the surface to the atmosphere. This exchange of heat from the surface creates a pattern of wind that circulates around a center. This circulation is similar to that of water going down a drain.

Patterns of Wind

"Converging winds" are winds moving in different directions that run into each other. Converging winds
at the surface collide and push warm, moist air upward. This rising air reinforces the air that is already
rising from the surface, so the circulation and wind speeds of the storm increase. In the meantime, strong
winds blowing at uniform speeds at higher altitudes (up to 30,000 ft / 9,000 m) help to remove the rising
hot air from the storm's center, maintaining a continual movement of warm air from the surface and
keeping the storm organized. If the high-altitude winds do not blow at the same speed at all levels -- if

wind shears are present -- the storm loses organization and weakens.
Pressure Gradient

High-pressure air in the upper atmosphere (above 30,000 ft / 9,000 m) over the storm's center also removes heat from the rising air, further driving the air cycle and the hurricane's growth. As high- pressure air is sucked into the low-pressure center of the storm, wind speeds increase.

Parts of a Hurricane
Once a hurricane forms, it has three main parts:
l
Eye - the low pressure, calm center of circulation
Photo courtesy NASA

This photo is a composite of three days' views (August 23, 24 and 25,
1992) of Hurricane Andrew as it slowly moved across south Florida
from east to west.

l
Eye wall - area around the eye with the fastest, most violent winds
l
Rain bands - bands of thunderstorms circulating outward from the eye that are part of the
evaporation/condensation cycle that feeds the storm
Size and Location

Hurricanes vary widely in physical size. Some storms are very compact and have only a few trailing
bands of wind and rain behind them. Other storms are looser, so the bands of wind and rain spread out
over hundreds or thousands of miles. Hurricane Floyd, which hit the eastern United States in September
1999, was felt from the Caribbean islands to New England.

Weather Alerts

According to The Weather Channel Online, there are four weather alerts for tropical storms and
hurricanes. Depending on where you are located in proximity to the storm, you may find yourself under
one of these alerts:

Photo courtesy NASA/GSFC

Hurricane Floyd was a Category 3 storm that brought intense rains and record flooding
to the eastern United States and Canada. Nearly 90 percent of the fatalities associated
with this storm were drownings due to inland flooding.

Photo courtesy National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Hurricane Bertha (July 1996) was also a Category 3 storm, but
Bertha's power and impact were contained in a much smaller area
than Floyd's.

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