6 Things to Know Now That Hurricane Season Has Started

A tiny Tropical Storm Arlene swirls harmlessly in the central Atlantic Ocean on April 20, 2017.
A tiny Tropical Storm Arlene swirls harmlessly in the central Atlantic Ocean on April 20, 2017.
Image Credit: NASA

Tropical Storm Arlene formed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on April 20, 2017, briefly coming to life far away from land—where it was little more than an oddity to gawk at on satellite imagery. Even though the short-lived system wasn’t much of a threat (beyond aggravating some fish), the early start to the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season grabbed headlines.

But if you're a coastal resident anxious about the summer to come, fear not! It doesn't necessarily bode ill for the season. Now is as good a time as any to talk about what you can expect in this upcoming year, and to take a look at the innovative ways forecasters are improving how you can prepare for an approaching storm.

1. DON’T GET TRIPPED UP BY THE TERM SUBTROPICAL.

Tropical Storm Arlene first began its life as a subtropical cyclone. The word subtropical sounds intimidating, but it just describes the meteorological structure of the storm itself. Tropical cyclones are low-pressure systems that form over warm ocean waters and maintain their strength through thunderstorms raging near the center of the storm. They are tight, compact systems that are warm and muggy all the way from the surface to the top of the clouds.

The atmosphere is fluid, though, so not all storms perfectly fit that definition. That’s where subtropical cyclones enter the picture. A subtropical cyclone is one that resembles a tropical cyclone, but it’s not completely warm throughout the storm. It’s also not compact. Unlike a tropical cyclone, where the strongest winds are concentrated right near the center of the storm, the wind field in a subtropical cyclone can be far removed from the center and stretch hundreds of miles across. Sometimes these cyclones progress into tropical versions, sometimes they don't.

2. A STORM IN APRIL ISN’T AN OMEN FOR THE SEASON TO COME.

It’s not too unusual for a tropical or subtropical system to develop before the start of hurricane season. Hurricane season in the Atlantic runs from June 1 to November 30, but that’s just when they’re most likely to develop. The 2016 hurricane season started with Hurricane Alex in January—which was highly unusual—with the season’s second system, Tropical Storm Bonnie, forming in May. The last time we saw a storm in April was Tropical Storm Ana near Bermuda in April 2003.

Since 2007, we’ve seen eight tropical or subtropical cyclones develop before the official start of hurricane season. These early-season storms formed in years that were both quiet and active. In other words, storms that form before the start of hurricane season are usually case studies in their own right rather than a sign of things to come. Plus, no matter how many storms develop, it only takes one storm hitting land to cause major problems.

3. IT’S HARD TO TELL EXACTLY WHAT WILL HAPPEN THIS HURRICANE SEASON.

So much of what happens in the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane season depends on what’s going on out in the eastern Pacific Ocean. El Niño and La Niña can have a major impact on how many storms are able to form. Years with El Niño conditions tend to see fewer storms in the Atlantic due to increased wind shear, which shreds potential storms apart before they can develop. Years featuring a La Niña can have the opposite effect, as cool waters in the Pacific help reduce destructive wind shear flowing out over the Atlantic—creating more opportunities for tropical systems to develop.

We’re in a “neutral” phase of the El Niño-La Niña cycle right now, which means that water temperatures in the eastern Pacific are right around where they should be. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is also calling for the chance for an El Niño toward the peak of hurricane season, though nothing is set in stone. If that happens as forecast, there’s a chance this season might come in a little quieter than average.

4. FORECASTS ARE A LITTLE BETTER THAN THEY WERE A FEW YEARS AGO.


A forecast map showing the cone of uncertainty for Hurricane Matthew on October 3, 2016.
Image Credit: Dennis Mersereau

When tropical storms and hurricanes fire up this summer, the most noticeable part of the coverage you’ll see online and on television is the cone of uncertainty, a shaded bubble that stretches along the length of the storm’s forecast track. This cone of uncertainty is the historical margin of error in hurricane track forecasts. Forecasts today are good enough that you can expect that the eye of a tropical cyclone will stay somewhere within that cone of uncertainty about two-thirds of the time.

At the end of each hurricane season, meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) calculate the error in their previous forecasts and determine how far off their track forecasts were, on average. The NHC takes this average error at each time step and uses the resulting distance to draw a circle around their forecast points, connecting each circle to make the cone we’re all familiar with. The cone of uncertainty has steadily shrunk over the years—and the cone will grow a little narrower once again this year.

5. GET READY FOR STORM SURGE WARNINGS.

The deadliest part of a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane is flooding from storm surge, or the sea water that’s pushed inland by strong, persistent winds. Most storm surges are small; however, the surge in a large or intense storm can completely submerge a one-story home and push water several miles inland.

Since the threat for storm surge flooding can get lost in the focus on how strong the wind is blowing, the NHC will start officially issuing storm surge watches and warnings this year. Communities placed under one of these new storm surge warnings can expect life-threatening coastal flooding within 36 hours. This new focus on flooding might help convince people who would otherwise attempt to ride out the storm that it’s a better idea to leave for a few days than risk their lives.

6. YOU’LL HAVE A BETTER IDEA OF WHEN THINGS WILL GET UGLY.


A map showing the forecast arrival time for tropical storm force winds in Hurricane Matthew on October 3, 2016.
Image Credit: NOAA/NHC

Another new product being introduced this year by the National Hurricane Center is an arrival time map [PDF]. This forecast will show you when you can reasonably expect the damaging winds of a tropical storm or a hurricane to reach a certain point based on the storm’s current forecast track. This will help people and agencies gauge just how long they have to prepare for a storm before conditions deteriorate and venturing outside is too dangerous. However, these times are estimates—if the storm changes direction, speeds up, or slows down, the arrival times will change accordingly. Generally with storm systems, you can never be too prepared.

Lake Michigan Has Frozen Over, and It's an Incredible Sight

Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

A polar vortex has brought deadly temperatures to the Midwest this week, and the weather is having a dramatic effect on one of the region's most famous features. As the Detroit Free Press reports, parts of Lake Michigan have frozen over, and the ice coverage continues to grow.

The Lake Michigan ice extent has increased rapidly throughout January, starting around 1 percent on the first of the month and expanding to close to 40 percent by the end of the month. Yesterday was the coldest January 30 in Chicago history, with temperatures at O'Hare Airport dropping to -23°F. Even though it's frozen, steam can be seen rising off Lake Michigan—something that happens when the air above the lake is significantly colder than the surface. You can watch a stream of this happening from a live cam below.

Lake Michigan's ice coverage is impressive, as these pictures show, but it's still far from breaking a record. Though Lake Michigan has never frozen over completely, it came close during the winter of 1993 to 1994 when ice reached 95 percent coverage.

Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana aren't the only places that have been hit hard by the cold this winter. At the United States/Canada border, Niagara Falls froze to a stop in some spots, a phenomenon that also produced some stunning photographs.


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[h/t Detroit Free Press]

Why You Need to Keep Your Car's Gas Tank Full in Cold Weather

iStock.com/Chalabala
iStock.com/Chalabala

Schools, trains, and the U.S. Postal Service have shut down this week as a polar vortex brings negative double-digit temperatures to the Midwest. Even if residents won't be doing much traveling as long as the dangerous weather persists, they'd benefit from keeping a full tank of gas in their cars: According to the Detroit Free Press, it's an easy way to prevent fuel lines from freezing.

One common reason cars struggle to start in cold weather is blocked-up fuel lines. These tubes are thin, and if there's any moisture in them when temperatures drop to extreme levels, they can freeze, causing blockages that prevent fuel from flowing.

Gasoline, on the other hand, doesn't freeze as easily. It maintains its liquid state in subzero temperatures, like those currently hitting parts of the U.S., so when a gas tank is full, those fuel lines are better equipped to handle to the cold.

If you filled up your tank before the recent cold snap and your car still won't start, it may have something to do with your antifreeze levels. Your car's radiator needs water to work properly, and antifreeze is what keeps the water liquid when temperatures dip below 32°F.

Of course, if temperatures have already dropped to dangerous levels in your area, it's not worth it to drive to the gas station to refuel or run out to stock up on antifreeze. Instead, keep these car maintenance tips in mind for the next time an arctic blast rolls in to town. And when it is safe enough to drive again, resist heating up your engine in the driveway: Letting your car idle in the cold can actually shorten the engine's lifespan.

[h/t Detroit Free Press]

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