6 Things to Know Now That Hurricane Season Has Started

A tiny Tropical Storm Arlene swirls harmlessly in the central Atlantic Ocean on April 20, 2017.
A tiny Tropical Storm Arlene swirls harmlessly in the central Atlantic Ocean on April 20, 2017.
Image Credit: NASA

Tropical Storm Arlene formed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on April 20, 2017, briefly coming to life far away from land—where it was little more than an oddity to gawk at on satellite imagery. Even though the short-lived system wasn’t much of a threat (beyond aggravating some fish), the early start to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season grabbed headlines.

But if you're a coastal resident anxious about the summer to come, fear not! It doesn't necessarily bode ill for the season. Now is as good a time as any to talk about what you can expect in this upcoming year, and to take a look at the innovative ways forecasters are improving how you can prepare for an approaching storm.

1. DON’T GET TRIPPED UP BY THE TERM SUBTROPICAL.

Tropical Storm Arlene first began its life as a subtropical cyclone. The word subtropical sounds intimidating, but it just describes the meteorological structure of the storm itself. Tropical cyclones are low-pressure systems that form over warm ocean waters and maintain their strength through thunderstorms raging near the center of the storm. They are tight, compact systems that are warm and muggy all the way from the surface to the top of the clouds.

The atmosphere is fluid, though, so not all storms perfectly fit that definition. That’s where subtropical cyclones enter the picture. A subtropical cyclone is one that resembles a tropical cyclone, but it’s not completely warm throughout the storm. It’s also not compact. Unlike a tropical cyclone, where the strongest winds are concentrated right near the center of the storm, the wind field in a subtropical cyclone can be far removed from the center and stretch hundreds of miles across. Sometimes these cyclones progress into tropical versions, sometimes they don't.

2. A STORM IN APRIL ISN’T AN OMEN FOR THE SEASON TO COME.

It’s not too unusual for a tropical or subtropical system to develop before the start of hurricane season. Hurricane season in the Atlantic runs from June 1 to November 30, but that’s just when they’re most likely to develop. The 2016 hurricane season started with Hurricane Alex in January—which was highly unusual—with the season’s second system, Tropical Storm Bonnie, forming in May. The last time we saw a storm in April was Tropical Storm Ana near Bermuda in April 2003.

Since 2007, we’ve seen eight tropical or subtropical cyclones develop before the official start of hurricane season. These early-season storms formed in years that were both quiet and active. In other words, storms that form before the start of hurricane season are usually case studies in their own right rather than a sign of things to come. Plus, no matter how many storms develop, it only takes one storm hitting land to cause major problems.

3. IT’S HARD TO TELL EXACTLY WHAT WILL HAPPEN THIS HURRICANE SEASON.

So much of what happens in the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane season depends on what’s going on out in the eastern Pacific Ocean. El Niño and La Niña can have a major impact on how many storms are able to form. Years with El Niño conditions tend to see fewer storms in the Atlantic due to increased wind shear, which shreds potential storms apart before they can develop. Years featuring a La Niña can have the opposite effect, as cool waters in the Pacific help reduce destructive wind shear flowing out over the Atlantic—creating more opportunities for tropical systems to develop.

We’re in a “neutral” phase of the El Niño-La Niña cycle right now, which means that water temperatures in the eastern Pacific are right around where they should be. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is also calling for the chance for an El Niño toward the peak of hurricane season, though nothing is set in stone. If that happens as forecast, there’s a chance this season might come in a little quieter than average.

4. FORECASTS ARE A LITTLE BETTER THAN THEY WERE A FEW YEARS AGO.


A forecast map showing the cone of uncertainty for Hurricane Matthew on October 3, 2016.
Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

When tropical storms and hurricanes fire up this summer, the most noticeable part of the coverage you’ll see online and on television is the cone of uncertainty, a shaded bubble that stretches along the length of the storm’s forecast track. This cone of uncertainty is the historical margin of error in hurricane track forecasts. Forecasts today are good enough that you can expect that the eye of a tropical cyclone will stay somewhere within that cone of uncertainty about two-thirds of the time.

At the end of each hurricane season, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) calculate the error in their previous forecasts and determine how far off their track forecasts were, on average. The NHC takes this average error at each time step and uses the resulting distance to draw a circle around their forecast points, connecting each circle to make the cone we’re all familiar with. The cone of uncertainty has steadily shrunk over the years—and the cone will grow a little narrower once again this year.

5. GET READY FOR STORM SURGE WARNINGS.

The deadliest part of a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane is flooding from storm surge, or the sea water that’s pushed inland by strong, persistent winds. Most storm surges are small; however, the surge in a large or intense storm can completely submerge a one-story home and push water several miles inland.

Since the threat for storm surge flooding can get lost in the focus on how strong the wind is blowing, the NHC will start officially issuing storm surge watches and warnings this year. Communities placed under one of these new storm surge warnings can expect life-threatening coastal flooding within 36 hours. This new focus on flooding might help convince people who would otherwise attempt to ride out the storm that it’s a better idea to leave for a few days than risk their lives.

6. YOU’LL HAVE A BETTER IDEA OF WHEN THINGS WILL GET UGLY.


A map showing the forecast arrival time for tropical storm force winds in Hurricane Matthew on October 3, 2016.
Image Credit: NOAA/NHC

Another new product being introduced this year by the National Hurricane Center is an arrival time map [PDF]. This forecast will show you when you can reasonably expect the damaging winds of a tropical storm or a hurricane to reach a certain point based on the storm’s current forecast track. This will help people and agencies gauge just how long they have to prepare for a storm before conditions deteriorate and venturing outside is too dangerous. However, these times are estimates—if the storm changes direction, speeds up, or slows down, the arrival times will change accordingly. Generally with storm systems, you can never be too prepared.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Is the Heat Index Real?

MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images
MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images

Complaining about the humidity is a mainstay of small talk. “It’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity” is a common refrain around the South, just as “it’s a dry heat” is a go-to line in the desert Southwest. The clichés aren’t wrong on this one—a hot and humid day can have a dramatic effect on both your comfort and your health. We can measure this very real impact on your body using the heat index. 

The heat index is the temperature it feels like to your body when you factor in both the actual air temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. If the heat index is 103°F, that means that the combination of heat and humidity has a similar physical impact on your body as it would if the actual air temperature were 103°F. Even though it’s tempting to think of the heat index as an exaggerated temperature that only exists to make the heat sound worse than it really is, scientists came up with the measurements after decades of medical and meteorological research devoted to studying the impact of heat and humidity on the human body. It’s the real deal.

The dew point is an important component of the heat index. The dew point is the temperature at which the air would reach 100 percent relative humidity, or become fully saturated with moisture like on a foggy morning. Since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warmer air, lower dew points reflect lower moisture levels and higher dew points indicate higher moisture levels. Dew points below 60°F are comfortable, while readings reaching 70°F and even 80°F range from muggy to downright oppressive.

Measuring humidity on a hot day is important because moisture is how your body naturally cools itself off. Your sweat cools the surface of your skin through a process known as evaporative cooling. If the air is packed with moisture, it takes longer for your sweat to evaporate than it would in more normal conditions, preventing you from cooling off efficiently. The inability to lower your body temperature when it’s hot can quickly lead to medical emergencies like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is why the heat index is such an important measurement to pay attention to during the summer months.

The heat index is generally considered “dangerous” once the value climbs above 105°F, and your risk of falling ill increases the higher the heat index climbs.

Dry climates can have the opposite effect on your body, with the distinct lack of moisture in the air making it feel cooler to your body than it really is. Summers get oppressively hot in places like Arizona and Iraq, but the heat doesn’t affect residents as severely because the air is extremely dry. Dew points in desert regions can hover at or below 32°F even when the air temperature is well above 100°F, which is about as dry as it can get in the natural world.  

In 2016, a city in Kuwait measured the all-time highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in the eastern hemisphere, where temperatures climbed to a sweltering 129°F during the day on July 21, 2016. The dew point there at the same time was nearly 100 degrees cooler, leading to a heat index of just 110°F, much lower than the actual air temperature. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Extreme heat combined with extreme aridity can make your sweat evaporate too efficiently, quickly dehydrating you and potentially leading to medical emergencies similar to those you would experience in a much more humid region of the world. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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