What Are Microbursts?

NOAA Legacy Photo ERL/WPL, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
NOAA Legacy Photo ERL/WPL, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It's monsoon season in the American Southwest. Daily thunderstorms popping up over a dry landscape provide countless opportunities for passersby to take pictures and videos of the torrents as they bring an annual dose of rain to the otherwise parched desert. One of the more striking features of these desert thunderstorms is a term you see all over social media: microbursts. These destructive wind events can be terrifying to live through, but beautiful to watch from afar.

A microburst is a downward burst of damaging winds, rain, and hail that literally drops out of the bottom of a thunderstorm. A microburst occurs over a relatively tiny area; the extent of the strong winds is usually only a mile or two wide. From a distance, a microburst can look like a water balloon falling toward the ground, splashing outward upon impact like a mushroom cloud unfolding in reverse. Pictured above is a microburst with a classic water balloon appearance, spotted by NOAA scientists around 1980.

Meteorologists didn't give much thought to this phenomenon until the 1970s, when Dr. Ted Fujita—famous for his pioneering research into tornado intensity that led to the creation of the Fujita Scale—started to study the distinct pattern of damage that these windstorms leave behind.

You don't want to find yourself beneath a microburst. Just as with other destructive thunderstorms, some folks who experience these damaging winds insist that they really lived through a tornado. These winds come on suddenly, often going from a gentle breeze to a nightmarish windstorm within seconds, and can blow away anything not nailed down to the ground. Winds in a microburst can easily exceed 60 mph—but the strongest microbursts mimic the intensity of weak tornadoes, with winds peaking above 100 mph in some spots.

Microburst, circa 1980
Well-developed thunderstorm with microburst, circa 1980
NOAA Legacy Photo ERL/WPL, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Different parts of the United States are prone to different types of microbursts. A wet microburst occurs with heavy rain or hail; these are common in humid areas like the southeast. A dry microburst, on the other hand, isn't accompanied by any precipitation at all; blowing dust and debris at the surface is often the only indication one of these events is occurring. Dry microbursts are common in places where there's not much humidity, like higher elevations or the desert.

Microbursts form due to two factors: evaporation and the weight of rain and hail. Evaporation is a cooling process; when liquid water turns to water vapor, it absorbs heat and cools the air around it. If dry air starts to invade the environment in or around a thunderstorm, it can cause rain to evaporate and leave behind large sections of air that are suddenly cooler than their surroundings. This less dense air sinks toward the ground, falling faster and faster until impact. The weight of the rain and hail also contributes to the speed of a microburst. Water is heavy, and that weight plays a big role in dragging cool air down from a thunderstorm. The two processes combined help create microbursts.

The biggest danger posed by microbursts is their sudden, sneaky formation. Microbursts happened with almost no notice at all until just the last decade or two. You didn't know it was happening until it happened. This surprise downward burst of winds and resulting wind shear can be potentially lethal to aircraft that are taking off and landing during thunderstorms. Microbursts have contributed to numerous airplane crashes over the years, killing hundreds of people.

We've gotten much better at detecting microbursts. The prevalence of Doppler weather radar across the United States, including smaller radars installed near most major airports, allows meteorologists to give people on the ground and in airplanes a little bit of advance notice before a microburst occurs. Wind shear detection systems both on the ground and installed in aircraft have also helped tremendously when pilots are flying into nasty weather.

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Why Do We Wear Costumes on Halloween?

nito100/iStock via Getty Images
nito100/iStock via Getty Images

There’s no one explanation for how Halloween costumes originated. Much like the holiday itself, the practice of dressing up is the result of a hodgepodge of traditions from around the world.

Many historians suspect that the tradition has some basis in the Celtic festival of Samhain (also called Calan Gaeaf in Wales). Celebrated between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, Samhain marks the official start of winter—known to the Celts as the “dark season.” During Samhain, “the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to humankind,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

That wasn’t a comfort to the ancient Celts, who believed their deities were prone to playing tricks on human worshippers. Many festival participants disguised themselves as animals or beasts, hoping to hide from malevolent spirits who might bring them misfortune.

Move forward a few centuries and the modern-day practice of dressing up and trick-or-treating has its roots in the European custom of “mumming and guising.” Mummers would dress up in costumes, often woven from straw, and perform plays and songs for neighbors in exchange for food. Scottish and Irish immigrants brought that tradition to North America, where it later morphed into what we now know as trick-or-treating.

Halloween costumes didn’t experience their true heyday until the mid-1900s, though. For that, you can thank New York City entrepreneurs Ben and Nat Cooper, who started a company producing pop culture-themed costumes at a low cost. Ben Cooper, Inc., found a niche in helping kids become the characters they admired from television and comic books, often purchasing merchandising rights before said characters ever became popular. Due in no small part to the Cooper family’s innovation, Halloween costumes became an accessible and even necessary part of holiday festivities.

Today, Halloween costumes are big business. The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend about $3.2 billion on costumes this year (of that, about half a billion will go to costuming pets). You have to wonder what the ancient Celts would have thought about today’s Halloween costumes.

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What's the Difference Between a College and a University?

Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images
Chinnapong/iStock via Getty Images

Going off to college is a milestone in any young adult’s life. The phrase itself conjures up images of newfound independence, exposure to new perspectives, knowledge, and possibly even one or more sips of alcohol.

In America, however, few people use the phrase “going off to university,” or “headed to university,” even if they are indeed about to set off for, say, Harvard University. Why did college become the predominant term for postsecondary education? And is there any difference between the two institutions?

While university appears to be the older of the two terms, dating as far back as the 13th century, schools and students in North America have embraced college to describe most places of higher learning. There is no rigid definition of the words, but there are some general attributes for each. A college is typically a four-year school that offers undergraduate degrees like an associate or a bachelor’s. (Community colleges are often two-year schools.) They don’t typically offer master’s or doctorates, and the size of their student body is typically the smaller of the two.

Universities, on the other hand, tend to offer both undergraduate and graduate programs leading to advanced degrees for a larger group of students. They can also be comprised of several schools—referred to as colleges—under their umbrella. A university could offer both a school of arts and sciences and a school of business. The University of Michigan has a College of Engineering, for example.

While many of these traits are common, they’re not guaranteed. Some colleges can be bigger than universities, some might offer master’s degrees, and so on. To complicate matters further, an institution that fits the criteria of a university might choose to call itself a college. Both Dartmouth College and Boston College qualify as universities but use the college label owing to tradition. Schools may begin as colleges, grow into universities, but retain the original name.

People tend to think of a university as being more prestigious or harder to get into, but there are too many variables to make that determination at a glance. Some colleges might ask more of applicants than universities. Some universities might be smaller than certain colleges. Either one can be public or private.

Things get a little more convoluted abroad. In the UK, students go off to university (or uni) instead of college. The British version of college is typically a two-year program where students either focus on learning one particular skill set (much like a vocational school) or use the time to prepare for exams so that they can advance to university. Language matters, too; in Spanish, colegio usually refers to high school.

While the terms aren’t strictly interchangeable, there is enough of a difference between the two to try and make the distinction. Keep in mind that some states, like New Jersey, have rules about how institutions label themselves. There, a university has to have at least three fields of graduate study leading to advanced degrees.

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