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Hurricane Alex in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, January 14, 2016. | Source: Google Earth

We Just Had the First January Hurricane in the Atlantic Since 1954

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Hurricane Alex in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, January 14, 2016. | Source: Google Earth

We just had a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. That wouldn’t be an unusual statement during the summer, but no, it’s the middle of January—the middle of winter!—and there was a full-blown hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. (As of Friday morning, Alex weakened to a tropical storm as it made landfall in the Azores, off the coast of Portugal.) Stranger things have happened, but this one’s pretty high up there. Why did Hurricane Alex develop at such an odd time of the year? The dynamics came together just right, like nature winning the tropical lottery. 

(National Hurricane Center’s forecast track for Hurricane Alex, January 14, 2016. | Source: Dennis Mersereau)

The National Hurricane Center (NHC), the official tropical forecasting branch of the U.S. National Weather Service, said that Hurricane Alex had 85 MPH winds on the afternoon of Thursday, January 14, 2016, with a minimum central pressure of 981 millibars. (Standard sea level pressure is 1013 millibars, so 981 millibars is decent for a category one hurricane.)

The low that would become Alex had a long life before turning into a hurricane a few hundred miles northwest of the African coast. The NHC first issued a forecast for soon-to-be-Alex back when it was still an extratropical cyclone near Bermuda on January 7, tracking it across the ocean until it formed into a subtropical storm (I’ll explain that below) and then an unlikely hurricane seven days later.

While the storm certainly didn’t take forecasters by surprise, it’s surprising in that hurricanes aren’t really supposed to happen in the Atlantic in the middle of the winter.


(Tropical cyclone climatology in the Atlantic Ocean. | Source: NHC)

The Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. The climatological peak in hurricane activity is September 10; once fall cold fronts start sweeping through the United States and cold air pushes over the Atlantic Ocean, tropical activity drops off dramatically and it gets harder and harder for new storms to develop.

A “hurricane season” is little but a human construct—a range of dates on the human-made calendar that delineates a period of the year when our observations show that tropical systems are most likely to form in a certain ocean basin. But nature doesn’t always play by our rules, and nature does not define itself with our boxes. It is for this reason that nature sometimes leaves us scratching our heads, as it did when Hurricane Alex formed on January 14.

We’ve seen tropical storms or hurricanes form in the Atlantic in every month of the year—they’re least common in February and April (with only one system each on record)—and there have been a handful of systems in January. Two of the most well-known January storms actually formed on December 30 of the previous year. Tropical Storm Zeta, the last storm of the hyperactive 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, formed just before New Year’s Eve and dissipated on January 7, 2006. Alex is only the third known hurricane to exist in the Atlantic Ocean during the month of January, the other two being 1954’s Hurricane Alice (which was the other storm to form on December 30, surviving the first six days of 1955) and a brief, unnamed hurricane in the eastern Atlantic at the beginning of January 1938.


Visible satellite loop of Hurricane Alex on January 13 and 14, 2016. Image credit: NOAA

There are three types of large-scale cyclones (low pressure systems) that we deal with in the weather world. The most common type is called an extratropical cyclone, or one of those low-pressure systems that has cold and warm fronts swirling around its circulation. These systems, sometimes called “mid-latitude cyclones,” feed their energy from the jet stream, which creates strong lift in the atmosphere across a large area, leaving less air and lower air pressure at the surface. Most of our exciting weather is the result of extratropical cyclones.

A tropical cyclone, on the other hand, is one that’s completely warm and moist throughout the entire storm. Tropical cyclones are known as warm-core storms, as the cyclone gathers its strength from the powerful thunderstorms around the eye—the eyewall—which in turn feed off of the warm water below. Air rapidly rises through the thunderstorms in the eyewall, leaving very low air pressure at the surface. If dry air, strong winds, or cool water disrupt the thunderstorms in the eyewall, the storm quickly weakens.

A subtropical storm is sort of in between the other two types of cyclones, existing as a cyclone that’s shed its cold/warm fronts and consists of a warm core that still has some cold air left in the upper levels of the atmosphere. When conditions are favorable, a majority of subtropical storms in the Atlantic will fully transition into tropical entities, as Alex did. If you ever find yourself in the path of a subtropical storm, you won’t notice much of a difference—the difference between subtropical and tropical is mostly a concern for meteorologists and hardcore weather buffs.


(Sea surface temperatures, in °C, for January 13, 2016. | Source: NOAA/ESRL/PSD)

A disturbance over the water needs three main ingredients in order to turn into a tropical cyclone: warm water, low wind shear, and ample moisture. In this case, there was very little wind shear over the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and the low that would become Alex managed to ingest enough tropical moisture from the south that it insulated the system from dry air to its north and west.

That left the issue of warm water. The water isn’t all that warm in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean even in the middle of the summer, let alone the middle of January. Water temperatures are far below the levels one would typically expect to sustain a hurricane, but there’s a catch. Sharp temperature differences between air at the surface and air in the upper levels led to strong instability, allowing air to rise very quickly through the atmosphere. According to the NHC, yesterday the air high in the atmosphere above the hurricane was -60°C, which is extremely cold. This strong vertical temperature gradient is compensating for the lack of warm water, allowing thunderstorms to blossom and permitting Alex to defy the odds and become a hurricane.

What does this storm say about this summer’s hurricane season? Not much. The ongoing El Niño in the eastern Pacific Ocean is expected to wear off by this summer, bringing along the potential for a more active hurricane season than we saw in 2015. Fortunately, however, Hurricane Alex isn’t an omen for storms to come. This historical oddity was a one-off event, and it’s something we’re unlikely to see again for many years. 

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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’.”


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.


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.


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.


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].


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].


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.


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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Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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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