13 Powerful Facts About Hurricanes

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Hurricanes are a stunning, and dangerous, display of nature’s power. They’re some of the largest and most intense storms nature can produce. Today, we know more about these systems and have an easier time measuring and predicting them than ever before. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to hurricanes.

1. THEY ARE ONLY "HURRICANES" AROUND NORTH AMERICA.

A tropical cyclone is a compact, low-pressure system fueled by thunderstorms that draw energy from the heat generated by warm ocean waters. These tropical cyclones acquire different names depending on how strong they are and where in the world they form. A mature tropical cyclone is called a hurricane in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific Oceans. What’s known as a hurricane in the Atlantic is called a typhoon near Asia and simply a cyclone everywhere else in the world.

2. HURRICANES COME IN ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.

Not all hurricanes are picture-perfect. Some storms can look so disorganized that it takes an expert eye and advanced technology to spot them. A full-fledged hurricane can be as small as a few dozen miles across or as large as one-half of the United States, as was the case with Typhoon Tip in the western Pacific Ocean in 1979. The smallest tropical cyclone on record was 2008’s Tropical Storm Marco, a tiny storm in the Gulf of Mexico that almost made it to hurricane strength. Marco’s strong winds only extended 12 miles from the eye of the storm—a distance smaller than the length of Manhattan.

3. THE GREATEST DANGER IS IN THE EYEWALL.

The spiraling bands of wind and rain that radiate from the center of a hurricane are what give these storms their distinctive buzzsaw shape. These bands can cause damage, flooding, and even tornadoes, but the worst part of a hurricane is the eyewall, or the tight group of thunderstorms that rage around the center of the storm. The most severe winds in a hurricane usually occupy a small part of the eyewall just to the right of the storm’s forward motion, an area known as the right-front quadrant. The worst damage is usually found where this part of the storm comes ashore.

4. IT’S WARM IN THE EYE.

The core of a hurricane is very warm—they are tropical, after all. The eye of a hurricane is formed by air rushing down from the upper levels of the atmosphere to fill the void left by the low air pressure at the surface. Air dries out and warms up as it rapidly descends through the eye toward the surface. This allows temperatures in the eye of a strong hurricane to exceed 80°F thousands of feet above the Earth's surface, where it’s typically much colder.

5. THE EYE TELLS YOU A STORM’S SECRETS.

Like humans, you can tell a lot about a hurricane by looking it in the eye. A ragged, asymmetrical eye means that the storm is struggling to strengthen. A smooth, round eye means that the storm is both stable and quite strong. A tiny eye—sometimes called a pinhole or pinpoint eye—is usually indicative of a very intense storm.

6. SOME STORMS EVEN HAVE TWO EYES.

An eye doesn’t last forever. Storms frequently encounter a process known as an “eyewall replacement cycle,” which is where a storm develops a new eyewall to replace the old one. A storm weakens during one of these cycles, but it can quickly grow even more intense than it originally was once the replacement cycle is completed. When Hurricane Matthew scraped the Florida coast in October 2016, the storm’s impacts were slightly less severe because the storm underwent an eyewall replacement cycle just as it made its closest approach to land.

7. THE WIND IS ONLY PART OF THE DANGER.

While strong winds get the most coverage on the news, wind isn’t always the most dangerous part of the storm. More than half of all deaths that result from a landfalling hurricane are due to the storm surge, or the sea water that gets pushed inland by a storm’s strong winds. Most storm surges are relatively small and only impact the immediate coast, but in a larger storm like Katrina or Sandy, the wind can push deep water so far inland that it completely submerges homes many miles from the coast.

8. PATRICIA WAS THE STRONGEST STORM EVER RECORDED.

The strongest hurricane ever directly recorded was Hurricane Patricia in 2015 [PDF]. The storm bubbled up off the western coast of Mexico in October 2015, unexpectedly strengthening into a monster category 5 as it approached land. A Hurricane Hunter aircraft measured maximum sustained winds of 210 mph on the morning of October 23, 2015, the strongest sustained winds ever recorded in a tropical cyclone in history, and the storm reached its record of 215 mph shortly after the plane left the storm. Patricia weakened somewhat over the next day before it made landfall with 150 mph winds in a sparsely populated region of Mexico.

9. CALIFORNIA RARELY SEES TROPICAL CYCLONES.

It can seem odd that California occupies hundreds of miles of coastline but always seems to evade the hurricane threat faced by the East Coast. California almost never sees tropical cyclones because the ocean is simply too cold to sustain a storm. Only a handful of tropical cyclones have ever reached California in recorded history—the worst hit San Diego in 1858. The San Diego Hurricane was an oddity that’s estimated to have reached category 1 intensity as it brushed the southern half of the Golden State.

10. HURRICANE HUNTERS FLY PLANES INTO STORMS …

Aside from satellite and radar imagery, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what a hurricane is doing unless it passes directly over a buoy or a ship. This is where the Hurricane Hunters come in, a brave group of scientists with the United States Air Force and NOAA who fly specially outfitted airplanes directly into the worst of a storm to measure its winds and report back their findings. This practice began during World War II and has become a mainstay of hurricane forecasting in the decades since.

11. … AND DROP SENSORS TO MEASURE WAVES.

The Hurricane Hunters assess the storm with all sorts of tools that measure temperature, pressure, wind, and moisture, and have weather radar onboard to give them a detailed view of the entire storm. They regularly release dropsondes to "read" the inside of the storm. Dropsondes are like weather balloons in reverse—instead of launching weather sensors from the ground into the sky, they drop them down through the sky to the ground. The Hurricane Hunters also have innovative sensors that measure waves and sea foam and use the data to accurately estimate how strong the winds are at the surface.

12. WE STARTED NAMING STORMS TO KEEP TRACK OF THEM.

Meteorologists in the United States officially started naming tropical storms and hurricanes in the 1950s to make it easier to keep track in forecasts and news reports. Since then, naming tropical cyclones has become a worldwide effort coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for maintaining meteorological standards. Today, the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Pacific Ocean each receive a list of alternating masculine and feminine names that are reused every six years.

13. NAMES ARE RETIRED IF THE STORM WAS ESPECIALLY DESTRUCTIVE.

If a storm is particularly destructive or deadly, the WMO will “retire” the name from official lists so it’s never used again out of respect for the families of the storm’s victims and survivors. When a name is retired, another name starting with the same letter takes its place. More than 80 names have been retired from the Atlantic Ocean’s list of names since 1954. The names Matthew and Otto were retired after the 2016 hurricane season, and they will be replaced with Martin and Owen when the list is reused in 2022.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

7 Wintery Facts About Ice, Freezing Rain, and Sleet

Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0
Razvan Socol via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether you’re trying to fly across the country or you just want to buy groceries, a winter storm can have a significant impact on your life. But how can you tell if the ice, sleet, or freezing rain will prompt a winter weather advisory or a snow day from work? Here are a few facts about winter storm weather to help you prepare.

1. Freezing rain and sleet are a winter storm's silent hazards.

Ice in the form of freezing rain and sleet is just as big of a threat as snow, and often result in a winter weather advisory being issued for the affected region. Ice is arguably more dangerous than the fluffy white stuff. Snow is generally manageable: You can shovel it and plow it, and while others are doing the work, you can enjoy a snow day with a cup of hot cocoa. You can’t do that with ice.

For the most part, frozen water becomes solidly affixed to any exposed and untreated surface. There comes a point when ice is entirely unmanageable. Even a giant vehicle with four-wheel drive is useless when it can’t grip the surface it’s sliding on. Ice—mostly from freezing rain—is not only dangerous because of the associated travel hazards, but also because of the damage it can cause.

2. A winter storm with Freezing rain is dangerous.

Freezing rain is rain that freezes when it comes in contact with an exposed surface like a tree or a sidewalk. A small amount of freezing rain can leave a thin glaze of ice on just about any surface, creating a situation where surfaces that look wet are really icy instead. A steadier freezing rain will allow a crust of solid ice to form on trees and power lines, weighing them down to the point of breaking. Extreme ice accretions—over an inch—can cause significant damage and disrupt life for weeks at a time.

3. Freezing rain is actually melted snowflakes.

Freezing rain forms when there’s an inversion layer present during a winter storm. An inversion layer occurs when a layer of warm air gets sandwiched between two colder air masses. Snowflakes fall through the warm layer and completely melt before reentering the subfreezing air near the surface. This newly formed raindrop can’t freeze back into ice because it doesn’t have a nucleus around which to freeze, so the raindrop becomes supercooled, meaning it remains in liquid state even as its temperature drops below freezing. Once the supercooled raindrop reaches the ground, the water instantly freezes into ice.

4. All that ice from freezing rain is extremely heavy.

If you’ve ever had to carry a case of bottled water up a flight of stairs, you know that even a little bit of water is extremely heavy. Imagine even more weight on a much more fragile surface, and that’s what you get during an ice storm. Damage to trees can begin with just a quarter-inch of ice, with more damage to bigger and sturdier trees as the crust of ice grows thicker. The Weather Channel points out that just a half-inch of ice accretion on a standard power line can add 500 pounds of extra weight to the line and the poles supporting it. Extreme ice storms can cause as much damage as an intense tornado, as even a couple of inches of ice adds enough weight to crumple the tall steel transmission towers that carry high-voltage power lines—and those take a while to repair.

5. Sleet is freezing rain's annoying cousin. 

A close relative to freezing rain is sleet. Sleet, also known as ice pellets, forms through the same process as freezing rain. Snowflakes destined to become sleet also fall through a warm layer of air, but one that isn’t deep enough to melt the snowflake completely. Once the partially melted snowflake enters subfreezing air, there are still a couple of ice crystals left in the raindrop that allow the raindrop to freeze into a little ball of ice before reaching the ground. The result is an ice pellet about the size of half a grain of rice that makes a distinctive tinking noise as it bounces off cars, vegetation, and roofs.

6. Sleet is like snow that freezes solid. 

Sleet looks like snow and it accumulates like snow. It’s easy to mistake sleet for snow if you’re not a hardcore weather geek, but with enough accumulation, even the casual observer will know something is different pretty quickly. Sleet has a nasty habit of freezing into solid ice within a few hours of falling, especially if the Sun comes out or if temperatures briefly rise above freezing once the precipitation stops. Once this hardening occurs, it can be next to impossible to remove it from sidewalks, driveways, and roads until there’s a major thaw. In the southeastern United States, sleet is particularly common (and problematic), since the region is prone to warm air intruding on its winter storms and many municipalities don’t have enough snow equipment to clear the roads before that sleet freezes solid.

7. When a winter storm warning is issued, join the grocery lines.

Everyone makes fun of the throngs of panicked shoppers before a snowstorm, but stocking up on groceries before a winter storm is a pretty good idea for even the biggest cynic. If freezing rain knocks out power for an extended period of time, stores and restaurants will be forced to close until power is restored and they get fresh shipments of food. If that happens, you’re pretty much on your own for food and drink until conditions improve. Before a storm arrives, make sure you get plenty of food and beverages that you don’t have to cook or keep fresh.

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]

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