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Hurricane Harvey Broke Multiple Weather Records

Hurricane Harvey will be remembered as one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever strike the United States. The storm erupted from a weak tropical wave into a category 4 hurricane in just three days, coming ashore near Corpus Christi, Texas, late in the evening on August 25. Such a powerful storm hitting land is normally a catastrophe in its own right, but the tragedy that followed this storm wasn't caused by the wind or the ocean—it was the rain, and lots of it. Texas endured one of the worst flooding events in American history after Harvey lingered over the state for nearly a week and dropped more than three feet of rain on Houston, the country's fourth-largest city.

The hurricane's intense winds and storm surge devastated some of Texas's coastal communities near Corpus Christi, including the small towns of Rockport and Port Aransas. Wind gusts peaked above 100 mph across most areas in the path of the storm's eye. Weather instruments measured winds as high as 132 mph near Port Aransas as the eye came ashore on August 25. Hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by the storm's intense winds.

Under normal circumstances, a hurricane would make landfall and move out of the area within 24 hours. Late-night hurricanes typically end with residents surveying the damage by the first light of day. Harvey was not one of those storms. The storm stalled out over Texas after making landfall, meandering over the same area before reemerging over the Gulf of Mexico to make a second landfall in Louisiana five days later.


Observed rainfall between August 23, 2017 and August 30, 2017.
Dennis Mersereau

The bulk of Harvey's unprecedented rains fell on the Houston metropolitan area, a region that's notorious for flooding due to its geography and heavily urbanized landscape. Water has few places to go when heavy rain falls on such impermeable land. The influx of water quickly overwhelms narrow waterways and outdated drainage systems, leading to frequent stream and street flooding. The factor that separates this storm from previous flooding disasters in southeastern Texas is that this rain was worse than anything in recorded history, more than doubling the rainfall totals seen during the infamous floods unleashed by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport recorded 32.17 inches of rain between August 25 and August 29, while Houston's Hobby Airport—where the runways were flooded out for a time during the height of the storm—saw 38.22 inches of rain over the same period. The two airports both average about 50 inches of rain in a normal year. Various rain gauges around the area measured totals even higher than the two airports. A rain gauge in Cedar Bayou, Texas, just north of Galveston Bay, saw more than 52 inches of rain in five days.

Emergency officials and volunteers performed thousands of water rescues for people stranded in their homes and vehicles as the waters rose. The exact number of fatalities won't be known until crews can search every vehicle and home once the waters recede. The Washington Post quoted local officials as saying that floodwaters covered more than 30 percent of Harris County, home to Houston, during the height of the ordeal.

The perfect mix of ingredients came together to make Hurricane Harvey a historic disaster. Tropical cyclones require warm water, low wind shear, and ample moisture to develop and thrive. Once the tropical wave that seeded Hurricane Harvey's development hit the Gulf of Mexico, it had all three of those ingredients in abundance. The storm rapidly intensified under these perfect conditions, strengthening right up until it came ashore. But what made the storm especially destructive is that it didn't move after landfall.

Tropical storms and hurricanes are steered by winds through the atmosphere. Weaker storms are driven by prevailing winds close to the surface while strong storms like Harvey are steered by winds throughout the entire depth of the atmosphere. Harvey's path took it right into an area where there were no steering currents to force the storm to keep moving inland and away from Texas. The calm pattern around Harvey kept it locked in place, forcing the storm to meander for days after landfall, slowly tracking in a loop before making its way back out over the water.

Preliminary measurements show that Hurricane Harvey was the wettest tropical cyclone in American history, producing several reports of rainfall that break the previous all-time record. Cedar Bayou, Texas, will hold the unfortunate distinction of most rain ever recorded during a tropical cyclone, having measured 51.88 inches of rain by the afternoon of August 29. Even if that reading doesn't hold up to scrutiny, there were several more that beat the previous record of 48.00 inches set in Tropical Storm Amelia back in August 1978. Just over 49 inches of rain fell on a gauge near Pearland, Texas, a city that lies about halfway between Houston and Galveston.

Houston wasn't the only area devastated by the heavy rain. Houston gets the most coverage because it's home to the most people, but the scenes that played out there also unfolded in countless small towns and communities across the region. Extreme rainfall totals greater than three feet extended east of the metro area into southwestern Louisiana. The Texas cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur, which lie near the state line with Louisiana, saw more rain than Houston proper. The airport in Port Arthur measured nearly four feet of rain during the storm.

The rainfall isn't the only record set by Harvey. The storm put an end to the unprecedented streak of days without a major hurricane making landfall in the United States. The last hurricane rated category 3 or stronger to strike the country was Hurricane Wilma back in October 2005. Harvey was also the strongest hurricane to hit Texas since the 1960s.

Harvey wasn't the absolute worst case scenario for a hurricane hitting the Houston area, but it was a close second. Harvey will be remembered for its rainfall the same way Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are remembered for their storm surge. This storm would have been magnitudes worse if it had made landfall in Houston proper rather than 150 miles down the coast. Category 4 winds and storm surge funneling into Galveston Bay would have made this an unimaginable tragedy, but nearly four feet of rain in five days comes pretty close.

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Words
15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Space
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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