The Science of How a Hurricane Works

Through science, the human race has achieved many great things. Ancient Egyptians built astonishing pyramids, Einstein dreamed up the Theory of Relativity, and modern humanity has even traveled to the moon. These are just three of humanity’s greatest achievements. The evidence that the human race will one day rise far above where we are today, creating technologies that would today baffle the world, is clear, and it is sometimes documented in laboratory notebooks.

However, for all of the incredible discoveries on Earth, we still struggle to understand the weather. We know a lot about weather, such as how patterns influence it, how humans influence it, and how it can influence us, yet we still cannot perfectly predict what will happen when it occurs.

Intense weather certainly seems to be more common, especially when it comes to hurricanes – but is that true? What’s really going on inside these types of storms that seem to plague coastal towns across the country all too often?

Hurricane Season

Hurricane Basics

Understanding how a bit of rain and wind goes from a small storm to a giant, roving hurricane starts with understanding hurricane basics. First, the word hurricane can be a bit of a misnomer – tropical cyclone is a much more accurate term. The term cyclone in meteorology refers to the fact that the storm spins around a low-pressure center.

All hurricanes begin over the seas in and around the equator, where warm water gives rise to warm, very moist air. That warm, moist air mixes with cooler, upper-level air, producing thunderstorms and causing winds to pick up quickly. The warmer the water, the greater the storm – this is why most hurricanes begin in the summer or fall.

Often, an area of ocean will experience multiple thunderstorms in a small cluster. Gentle upper-level crosswinds eventually draw them together, creating one massive storm instead of several smaller systems. Then, convection helps to make the storm stronger.

The Role of Convection

Once a large thunderstorm exists over the tropical ocean, convection comes into play. Convection refers to the fact that, as warm air rises, it cools and then falls back to the earth. This process creates pressure around the storm. As the warm air rises, more air rushes in from the outside toward the center.

This, combined with the natural rotation of the Earth itself, is what produces a hurricane’s spin. As long as the waters remain warm, this process will continue to build on itself, and eventually the entire storm will spin faster and faster. It’s then that the “eye” of the storm is fully formed.

The stronger the storm, the larger the eye. Though the weather within the eye tends to be calm, the area directly around it – known as the eyewall – is also the most dangerous. This is the area that meteorologists spend the most time studying, jotting down information in scientific notebooks in an attempt to track patterns over time.

The Eyewall’s Power

As pressure builds and contrasts within the storm, the area directly around the eye becomes extremely powerful. Because the storm sucks up warm air from the center, the eyewall surrounding it contains the strongest rainstorms and the most downward pressure. Think of a straw filled with water; when you suck the water up, it comes up the straw and spills back down over its sides; it’s the same for hurricanes. This is the area of a hurricane that causes the most damage, although lesser rainfall and high winds can occur as far out as the outer edges of the storm.

Cooling Process

Fortunately, and, sometimes, unfortunately, most hurricanes do eventually get pushed out of tropical waters and onto land, as is documented by meteorologists. This is where much of the damage from storms like Hurricane Matthew is sustained. As the tropical cyclone moves away from warm ocean air, it loses some convection, and pressure begins to balance out once again.

The cool air reduces spin and wind speeds but doesn’t really impact rainfall specifically. That’s moderated by the fact that the storm can’t pick up as much moisture traveling over land. Eventually, the eye will collapse, and the storm dies down further, dropping out of hurricane status to become a tropical storm, and then melting back into thunderstorms and, eventually, just rain.

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How a Hurricane Works

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