The Science of Hurricane Season



Joseph Canning |

Since the end of August, natural disasters have disrupted the lives of thousands. Three hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—made continuous assaults that caught some regions in their destructive winds while people there were just beginning to pick up the pieces from the last storm.

With the tragic news that the hurricanes have created in newspapers and social media, many were left wondering how these storms seemed to pop up so suddenly and with such severity. Why are so many hurricanes forming so quickly?

The making of a monster

The Ranger News interviewed UW-Parkside geoscience professor Rachel Headley about the science behind the recent hurricanes.

“Hurricanes form with the evaporation of warm ocean water,” said Headley. Water needs to be approximately 80 degrees Fahrenheit or above for hurricane formation. The professor noted that the storms’ rotation arises when “surface winds that are converging with warm ocean water [are] pushed along by a higher-level wind.”

Hurricanes are then continuously fueled by the evaporation of increasingly more ocean water. As the vapor is sucked upwards into the storm, it gradually loses its heat, and as it falls it gains some of this heat back and gets sucked upwards again. This reciprocating motion is what allows these storms to have so much energy.

Headley stated that heat was the key to hurricane formation. The Atlantic hurricane season—lasting from June to the end of November—is when most hurricanes form “mainly due to the [higher] water temperature and directionality of the wind.”

The role of climate change

The severity of Harvey in particular prompted many questions regarding the role of climate change in the creation of destructive storms and if worse storms can be expected in the coming years. The professor asserted that “no one storm can be attributed to climate change; you can’t do that.”

While most scientists who study weather believe climate change is significantly affecting the formation of these storms, climate change itself is not causing them. Instead, a clear trend is emerging. Headley said, “in the future there might be more storms, there might not be, but what is uniform across the board… is that more hurricanes will be strong hurricanes.”

She and the meteorologists and climatologists who study tropical storms’ relation to climate change are not just speculating: they are basing these claims off decades worth of accumulated data. Scientists continue to use ever more complex models computer models that reveal how slightly higher global temperatures, shifted ocean currents, or higher sea levels could affect storm formation.

A professor’s perspective

When asked if she wanted UW-Parkside students to keep anything in mind about the implications of climate change, professor Headley urged a global view: “Even if you’re in area that won’t be directly affected… we shouldn’t lose track of the people.”

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