Hurricane, Typhoon, Cyclone, oh my! Three things that mean the same thing – trouble. From low supplies at stores, sparse gas, insane rescues, hurricanes truly display the power of nature and the power of the human spirit. And with the changing climate, hurricanes are slated to increase in strength over the coming millennia. But as Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Katia have shown their power over the last two weeks, the question remains, how do these bad boys even get started? And why does the Atlantic Ocean seem to continually be berated with hurricanes during the Autumn months? Let’s take a trip back to where hurricanes are born.
In the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa, the tiniest of disturbances travel upward toward the sky and begin to condense. Growing in strength, groups of little baby eddies of air become big kid thunderstorms called Easterly Waves, traveling from eastern to western Africa. Eventually these thunderstorms reach the waters of the Atlantic, recently warmed by the summer months. The thunderstorms aggregate and begin spinning. The water beneath begins to evaporate, rise, condense rapidly, while other water and air rushes in. Think of it like taking a ladle of chili out of a pot.
As you grab a bit, other chili comes in to take its place. Now imagine that someone comes along and takes a huge ladle full of chili, the rest of the pot would come splashing back with more intensity. Step back even further and imagine all of this is taking place on an extremely large rotating floor. The rushing toward the center would begin to take a more curved route. Likewise, the rotation of the Earth contributes to the rotation of hurricanes. And if the winds move fast enough, an eye begins to form at the heart of the evaporation machine. While the eye is calm with little wind, the eyewall is the most dangerous part of the hurricane with the fastest wind speeds.
When hurricanes make landfall, they don’t have the water driving their power any longer and, after a few days, begin to dissipate. While hurricanes bring a ton of rain with them, it’s the storm surge, or the water carried by the winds of the storm, that often causes the most trouble. While flooding is destructive, it's a bit of nature we can protect ourselves against. Because climate change increases ocean temperatures, stronger hurricanes come along with it. Stronger hurricanes mean higher storm surges. And at the same time, much of the infrastructure of the US is crumbling, which only presents bigger problems in a coastal town prone to hurricanes already. In coming years, we must address how coastal cities can be more resilient against the coming storms of climate change.
But in the meantime, for all of those in the storm's path, good luck. While they may start out as little baby winds, hurricanes grow up to be one of the most powerful forces of nature.