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The power of the hurricane

The power of the hurricane

Posted on 05 Feb 2023

The seemingly mystical properties of the tornado have proved to be both fascinating and frightening. In 1939, a fictional ‘twister’ transported the young Judy Garland from her monochromatic mid-west life into a surreal and colorful world of wizards and witches. Today, these mystical properties fascinate chasers who deliberately pursue storms in order to uncover their secrets through their senses of curiosity, adventure and quest for scientific knowledge.  In our previous article we looked at the wind - we now turn or focus on a more extreme form of the weather phenomenon.

The nature of Hurricanes

Hurricanes are giant, spiraling tropical storms that originate in the West (mostly over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico). Their wind speeds can exceed 160 mph, and release more than 9 trillion liters (2.4 trillion gallons) of rain. When these storms occur in the northern Indian Ocean they are known as cyclones, and typhoons in the western Pacific Ocean. These storms are easily identified by their iconic spiral shape. The spiral (twisting counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere) develops as a high-pressure area twists around a low-pressure area.

These storms begin in warm ocean waters when the surface temperatures are at least 26.6C. If the disturbance lasts for more than 24 hours and gets to speeds of 38 mph, it becomes known as a tropical depression. The next stage is when the wind speeds up to between 39 and 73 mph, when it becomes known as a tropical storm, and is given a name. Meteorologists name the storms in alphabetical order, and alternate with female and male names. The final stage is when the wind speeds exceed 74mph, and the storm becomes a full-blown hurricane, and is rated on the Saffir Simpson scale with a value of 1 to 5, with a category 5 hurricane blowing at 252 kph (157 mph).

At the center of a hurricane dwells a calm, low-pressure area known as the ‘eye’. However this area is surrounded by the ‘eye wall’, and is the most destructive and strongest part of the storm. The heavy rains generated by a hurricane can contribute to floods and landslides, which may occur many kilometers inland. Damage to homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, roads, and transportation systems can devastate communities and entire regions.

In 2005, hurricane Katrina brought devastation as it blew through the Gulf of Mexico and into the southern USA. It destroyed buildings, vehicles, roads, and shipping facilities, estimated at about $133.8 billion.

Effect of Climate Change on Hurricanes

A study has shown that although it is not clear if climate change is increasing the actual number of hurricanes, it is having a worsening effect on the intensity of the storms, as well as slowing their rate of travel. 

The exact reason that the speed of hurricanes are slowing is not entirely understood, it has been seen that their slower speed is creating more damage through higher winds and increased rainfall focused on a specific area, especially over coastal areas. 

Increasing sea temperatures has meant that the number of larger hurricanes has increased, and smaller ones decreased. The amount of precipitation that hurricanes deposit is also increasing due to the rising sea temperatures. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 dropped up to 150cm in certain locations, Florence in 2018 with over 89 cm, and Imelda in 2019 up to 110 cm. 

Rising sea levels have the effect of worsening the damage caused by hurricanes. For example, a study of Hurricane Sandy estimated that sea levels at the time increased the likelihood of flooding by three times and that the additional forecast sea level rising will make severe flooding four times more likely in the future.

The location that these storms occur also seems to be changing. The warming of mid-latitudes is thought to have an effect on the overall pattern of tropical storms. There have been observations that show a northward shift in the location where hurricanes reach their highest intensity in the Pacific ocean, but not the Atlantic.

Cost of Hurricanes

In addition to the devastating human cost of the increasing severity of hurricanes, the financial costs have reached record levels. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina remained the most expensive hurricane on record, costing over $186 billion.

With the new coastal developments comes the increased likelihood of damage to buildings and infrastructure, as well as undermining energy, water, sewage, transportation, and flood management structures.

We have shown that addressing climate change requires long-term investment, there are however some short-term measures that have shown to mitigate the risk of hurricane damage:

  • Protecting coastal wetland areas, dunes, and reefs to absorb storm surge;

  • Avoiding placing new buildings on areas that are known to flood, or have a history of hurricanes;

  • Restoring beaches and improving coastal protection, such as seawalls.

  • Placing vulnerable buildings on elevated areas;

  • Creating building standards that incorporate resistance to high winds and flying debris;

  • Local community planning to help people understand how to prepare for a storm, and if needed, evacuate an area;

Through accurate weather forecasting, and the integration of the OpenWeather Global Weather Alerts into your app to receive timely push notifications of detailed global weather alert information.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones and twisters of all types are natural weather phenomena that are causing increasing levels of damage to people’s lives and property. Potentially exacerbated by global warming, they can be mitigated against by a combination of building regulations, coastal protection and weather warning applications.  

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