How Are Hurricane Categories Determined?

NOAA via Getty Images
NOAA via Getty Images

Residents of Panama City and other areas in the Florida Panhandle are in the midst of Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm that Governor Rick Scott warned is the "worst storm" to hit the area "in a century."

Given that North Carolina is still battling the effects of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall less than a month ago, we've become accustomed to hearing about hurricanes, and to predicting what sort of damage they might cause based on their category number. But how do meteorologists categorize these often-deadly storms, and how does that scale work?

First, a quick primer: Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that occur in the Atlantic Ocean and have winds with a sustained speed of at least 74 mph. A tropical cyclone, in turn, is a storm system that develops in the tropics and is characterized by a low pressure center and thunderstorms that produce strong winds, rain, and storm surges. Tropical cyclone is a generic name that refers to the storms' geographic origin and cyclonic rotation around a central eye. Depending on their location and strength, the storms are called different things. What gets dubbed a hurricane in the Atlantic, for example, would be called a typhoon if it happened in the northwestern Pacific.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HURRICANE AND A TROPICAL STORM?

Simply put: Wind speed. When tropical cyclones are just starting out as general areas of low pressure with the potential to strengthen, they’re called tropical depressions. They’re given sequential numbers as they form during a storm season so the National Hurricane Center (NHC) can keep tabs on them.

Once a cyclone’s winds kick up to 39 miles per hour and sustain that speed for 10 minutes, it becomes a tropical storm and the NHC gives it a name. If the cyclone keeps growing and sustains 74 mph winds, it graduates to hurricane.

ONCE WE CALL IT A HURRICANE, HOW DO WE CATEGORIZE IT?

In order to assign a numeric category value to a hurricane, meteorologists look to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which was developed as a classification system for Western Hemisphere tropical cyclones in the late 1960s and early '70s by structural engineer Herbert Saffir and his friend, meteorologist Robert Simpson, who was the director of the NHC at the time.

When Saffir was working on a United Nations project to study low-cost housing in hurricane-prone areas, it struck him that there was no simple, standardized way of describing hurricanes and their damaging effects, like the way the Richter scale is used to describe earthquakes. He created a five-level scale based on wind speed and sent it off to Simpson, who expanded on it to include the effects on storm surge and flooding. Simpson began using it internally at the NHC, and then in reports shared with emergency agencies. It proved useful, so others began adopting it and it quickly spread.

HOW DOES THE SCALE WORK?

According to the NHC, the scale breaks down like this:

Category 1 storms have sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph. These “very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding, and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days."

Category 2 storms have sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph. These “extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks."

Category 3 storms have sustained winds of 111 to 129 mph. This is the first category that qualifies as a “major storm” and “devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes."

Category 4 storms have sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph. These storms are “catastrophicand damage includes: “Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Category 5 storms have sustained winds of 157 mph or higher. The catastrophic damage entailed here includes: “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

While the Saffir-Simpson scale is useful, it isn’t the be-all and end-all for measuring storms, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out on Twitter in 2013:

IS THERE ANYTHING WORSE THAN A CATEGORY 5?

Not on paper, but there have been hurricanes that have gone beyond the upper bounds of the scale. Hypothetically, hurricanes could up the ante beyond Category 5 more regularly. The storms use warm water to fuel themselves and as ocean temperatures rise, climatologists predict that potential hurricane intensity will increase.

Both Saffir and Simpson have said that there’s no need to add more categories because once things go beyond 157 mph, the damage all looks the same: really, really bad. Still, that hasn't stopped several scientists from suggesting that maybe the time has come to consider a Category 6 addition.

Timothy Hall, a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently told the Los Angeles Times that if the current global warming trends continue, he can foresee a time—likely by the end of the century—where wind speeds could blow past 230 mph, which could create conditions similar to a F-4 tornado (which has the power to lift cars off the ground and send them hurtling through the air with relative ease).

“If we had twice as many Category 5s—at some point, several decades down the line—if that seems to be the new norm, then yes, we’d want to have more partitioning at the upper part of the scale,” Hall said. “At that point, a Category 6 would be a reasonable thing to do."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

A Pile of Manure and a Heat Wave Combined to Cause Spain’s Worst Wildfire in 20 Years

Lumppini, iStock/Getty Images Plus
Lumppini, iStock/Getty Images Plus
A pile of manure in Spain ignited on June 27, sparking a wildfire that has torn through more than 10,000 acres of forest and other Catalonian landscapes, CNN reports. The manure combusted in part because of a scorching heat wave that has swept across Europe this week; temperatures in the affected region hit 104°F, and Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic all reached record-breaking June temps. Catalan regional interior minister Miquel Buch reported that authorities believe the manure was improperly stored on a chicken farm in the village of La Torre de l’Espanyol, where it was exposed to the worst of the heat, according to NBC News. The wildfire—Spain’s most devastating in 20 years—is affecting the region just west of Tarragona, a port city that is best known for its Roman ruins, which is situated along the Balearic Sea about 60 miles southwest of Barcelona. [[{"fid":"315211","view_mode":"width-constrained-728","fields":{"format":"width-constrained-728","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Map of Catalonia, Spain","field_image_subhead[und][0][value]":"","field_image_subhead[und][0][format]":"unfiltered","field_caption[und][0][value]":"","field_caption[und][0][format]":"unfiltered","field_credits[und][0][value]":"PeterHermesFurian%2C%20iStock%2FGetty%20Images%20Plus","field_credits[und][0][format]":"unfiltered"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"width-constrained-728","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Map of Catalonia, Spain","field_image_subhead[und][0][value]":"","field_image_subhead[und][0][format]":"unfiltered","field_caption[und][0][value]":"","field_caption[und][0][format]":"unfiltered","field_credits[und][0][value]":"PeterHermesFurian%2C%20iStock%2FGetty%20Images%20Plus","field_credits[und][0][format]":"unfiltered"}},"link_text":false,"attributes":{"alt":"Map of Catalonia, Spain","height":728,"width":728,"class":"media-element file-width-constrained-728","data-delta":"1"}}]] The firefighting force includes about 350 firefighters, 12 fire engines, seven aircraft, two hydroplanes, and additional vehicles equipped with water tanks—all of which are techniques regularly used to fight massive blazes. Though high temperatures are expected to continue and the rough terrain itself is also a contributing factor in the rapid spread of the fire, the strong winds should soon abate; authorities have warned people to stay inside. Though more than 50 people have been evacuated from the area, no deaths have been reported thus far. While the spontaneous combustion of flammable materials like manure, hay, or compost is definitely possible, as evidenced by this situation, it’s not the most common way for wildfires to start. More common causes include lit cigarettes, unattended campfires, burning debris, and engine sparks. [h/t CNN]

Colorado Welcomed Summer With 2 Feet of Snow

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

While people in some parts of the country celebrated the first day of summer with barbecues and trips to the beach, residents of north and north-central Colorado had a snow day. Areas west of Denver—including Grand Lake, Aspen, and Steamboat Springs—experienced snow storms on summer solstice, with snowfall totaling nearly 2 feet at the highest elevations, CBS Denver reports.

Snow started falling in the Rocky Mountains the morning of Friday, June 21 and continued Sunday. Areas at ground level weren't cold enough to experience the unusual weather, but at elevations of 7000 feet and above, it looked like a winter wonderland. Steamboat Springs, a ski resort town in Colorado’s Yampa Valley, accumulated 20 inches of snow on the longest day of the year.

While Colorado mountain towns are used to seeing snow at odd times of year, the weekend's weather was still out of the ordinary. The average snowfall for Steamboat Springs in June is 0.1 inches. Prior to last Friday, it had been 91 years since a snowstorm hit the city in late June.

Snow has fallen in the Rockies later than average in six out of the past seven years. Though it feels like an extension of winter, the trend may actually be a product of the warming atmosphere. A warmer climate affects the jet stream, potentially pushing its course further south and leading to unusual weather patterns, such as unseasonable snowstorms in Colorado.

That means residents of some parts of the state will have to wait to have their summer hikes and picnics. The weather was serious enough to shut down one road in Rocky Mountain National Park.

[h/t CBS Denver]

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