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 The influx of water quickly overwhelms narrow waterways and outdated drainage systems, leading to frequent stream and street flooding.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.

For the First Time Ever, a Woman Has Won the Abel Prize—Math's Version of the Nobel Prize

iStock.com/perfectlab
iStock.com/perfectlab

Every year since 2003, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has bestowed the Abel Prize for excellence and contributions in the field of mathematics. Every year, the recipient has been a man. In 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck crushed that dubious tradition and became the first woman to win the Abel Prize and its $700,000 award.

An emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Uhlenbeck’s work is focused on gauge theory and geometric analysis—the latter a field she pioneered. Gauge theory supports theoretical physics and is involved in the research of particle physics and string theory. Uhlenbeck is also credited with work that led to greater comprehension of the unification of forces, a primary objective in physics that attempts to link electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force with strong nuclear force in a single theory, which would help us understand the universe.

Mathematician and Abel Prize winner Karen Uhlenbeck is seen in a portrait
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Uhlenbeck arrived at UT Austin in 1987 and stayed after her retirement in 2014. During that time, she co-founded several programs, including the Saturday Morning Math Group and Distinguished Women in Mathematics lecture series, both in Texas, as well as the Park City Mathematics Institute and the Woman and Mathematics program at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

She achieved another milestone in her field in 1990, when she became the second woman (and the first since 1932) to host a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians.

The Abel Prize, which is modeled after the Nobel Prize, is named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel. Uhlenbeck will receive the prize in Oslo on May 21.

[h/t New Scientist]

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

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