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Hurricanes

Hurricane is a word that strikes fear deep into the hearts of many. One hurricane alone is capable of killing hundreds, even thousands, of people. So it is really no wonder that people fear it so much. With that in mind, we aim to inform you about what exactly hurricanes are, and also to provide some tips about how you can prepare and protect yourself in the event of a hurricane.

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For those of you who don’t already know and are wondering, a hurricane can be defined in two different ways:

  • It is a type of tropical storm comprising violent winds and thunderstorms that takes place in tropical areas (as the name ‘tropical cyclone’ suggests), namely the Northern Hemisphere.
  • It can also refer to any winds with force 12 on the Beaufort scale, which essentially means that as long as any wind, in any part of the world, has winds equal to or exceeding 64 knots or 74 miles per hour, then it can be classified as a hurricane.

People often confuse hurricanes with tornadoes, or use the two terms interchangeably. But hurricanes and tornadoes are, in fact, not the same thing. In fact, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons and cyclones refer to different things, although they may sound the same. A cyclone is the most all-encompassing term. It refers to any low pressure system that rotates counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere, or a low pressure system that rotates clockwise in the southern hemisphere. On the other hand, hurricanes and typhoons are just different names for tropical cyclones that occur in different places. As aforementioned, hurricanes occur in the Northern Hemisphere. More specifically, hurricanes occur over the Atlantic basin and the Eastern Pacific Ocean. As opposed to that, typhoons occur over the Western Pacific Ocean. A tornado, on the other hand, is a type of cyclone that occurs within thunderstorms in certain conditions. So hurricanes and typhoons could actually give rise to tornadoes.

Winds in a hurricane generally rotate rapidly in a counter clockwise pattern, near the surface of the earth, and in a spiral arrangement. They vary in terms of size, with some being as small as 62 miles wide, and others as large as 2500 miles wide. In the center of the hurricane is a low-pressure area, commonly known as the ‘eye’ of the hurricane. For those of you who have seen footage of real-life hurricanes before, you will know that it is extremely destructive and violent, but the ‘eye’ of the hurricane is in fact an area which is calm and peaceful, or rather, as peaceful as one can be when surrounded by a hurricane. The ‘eye’ is a roughly circular area, usually with a diameter of about 20 to 40 miles. The barometric pressure in the eye can be up to 15 percent lower than the barometric pressure of the area surrounding the hurricane. If you were to stand in the ‘eye’ of the hurricane and look up, you would actually see a patch of calm blue sky. So, you could actually say that the ‘eye’ of the hurricane is the safest place to be when there is a hurricane, but of course, it would be impossible to get there. Surrounding the ‘eye’ is the ‘eye wall’, the most violent part of the hurricane. The eye wall consists of strong winds of more than 75 miles per hour and massive thunderstorms. Hurricanes usually form over large bodies of warm water. When large amounts of water evaporate from the ocean and condense in the sky, forming clouds and rain, hurricanes gain energy. The fierce rotating winds in a hurricane are due to the rotation of the Earth, causing air to flow inwards toward the axis of the Earth’s rotation. This results in conservation of angular momentum, hence giving rise to the rotating winds of a hurricane. Hurricanes cause not only torrential rain and strong winds, but also often create storm surges, extremely high offshore rises of water associated with a low pressure weather system. This is one of the reasons why hurricanes are so destructive. These storm surges cause serious flooding up to 25 miles from the coastline. For this reason, we can say that coastal areas are more vulnerable to being damaged by hurricanes as compared to areas that are further inland.

However, it can also be said that hurricanes do have a few beneficial effects. In areas suffering from drought, a hurricane can relieve drought conditions. Another beneficial effect of hurricanes is that they carry heat away from the tropical areas, bringing it to colder regions. This contributes to the modulating of regional and global climate and temperature levels.

Types of Hurricanes

As mentioned earlier, hurricanes may vary greatly in terms of size. First, let us discuss how the size of a hurricane is measured. The most popular method of determining the size of a hurricane is to measure the distance from its core to the edge of the hurricane itself. Picturing the hurricane as a circle, this length would be the radius of the hurricane. If the radius of a hurricane is less than 138 miles, the hurricane is considered small. If this radius is between 207 to 420 miles, the hurricane is considered average sized. However, if the radius of a hurricane exceeds 552 miles, it is considered massive. Another way of determining the size of a hurricane is to measure the force of its winds. With the rough classification of hurricanes into ‘small’, ‘average sized’ and ‘massive’, there is a more detailed and scientific manner to classify hurricanes. The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale classifies hurricanes into five different categories according to the strength of their winds, with a Category 1 hurricane having the lowest wind speeds and a Category 5 hurricane having the highest. The purpose of this scale is to give an idea of the hurricane’s present intensity, allowing people to estimate the level of potential damage that the hurricane will create.

Category One Hurricane

A category one hurricane consists of winds rotating at 74 to 95 miles per hour. It has the potential to create storm surges of about 4 to 5 feet above the usual rise of water. Category one hurricanes generally do not cause much damage to building structures, but rather to unanchored items and fixtures such as shrubbery, trees, even mobile homes, road signs and anything else that is unanchored and is exposed to the storm. Category one hurricanes may cause some minor flooding along coastal regions, and may also cause some minor damage to nearby piers. Examples of category one hurricanes: Hurricane Allison in 1995, and Hurricane Danny in 1997

Category Two Hurricane

A category two hurricane consists of winds rotating at 96 to 110 miles per hour. It has the potential to create storm surges of about 6 to 8 feet above the usual rise of water. Category two hurricanes generally cause only minor damage to building structures. Examples of such damage include but are not limited to windows, doors and some parts of roofs. Category two hurricanes also cause considerable damage to unanchored items and fixtures such as shrubbery, trees, even mobile homes, road signs and anything else that is unanchored and is exposed to the storm. Category two hurricanes usually cause some flooding along coastal and nearby low-lying regions, sometimes up to 2 to 4 hours before the hurricane center arrives at those locations. These hurricanes will also cause considerable damage to piers. Examples of category two hurricanes: Hurricane Bonnie in 1998 (North Carolina), and Hurricane Georges, also in 1998 (Florida Keys and the Mississippi Gulf Coast).

Category Three Hurricane

A category three hurricane consists of winds rotating at 111 to 130 miles per hour. It has the potential to create storm surges of about 9 to 12 feet above the usual rise of water. Category three hurricanes generally cause structural damage to smaller sized buildings. Category three hurricanes also cause quite a lot of damage to unanchored items and fixtures such as shrubbery, trees, even mobile homes, road signs and anything else that is unanchored and is exposed to the storm. In some cases, even large trees may be blown down. Category three hurricanes usually cause some flooding along coastal and nearby low-lying regions, sometimes up to 3 to 5 hours before the hurricane center arrives at those locations. This flooding causes damage to both small and large building structures alike in the coastal regions, and extends to up to 8 miles inland, particularly for areas less than 5 feet above average sea level. Examples of category three hurricanes: Hurricane Roxanne in 1996 (Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico), and Hurricane Fran, 1996 (North Carolina).

Category Four Hurricane

A category four hurricane consists of winds rotating at 131 to 155 miles per hour. It has the potential to create storm surges of about 13 to 18 feet above the usual rise of water. Category four hurricanes generally cause considerable structural damage to smaller sized buildings. For instance, there may be complete roof structure failures. Category four hurricanes also usually completely destroy unanchored items and fixtures such as shrubbery, trees, even mobile homes, road signs and anything else that is unanchored and is exposed to the storm. In most cases, all these above mentioned items will be blown down. Category four hurricanes usually cause some flooding along coastal and nearby low-lying regions, sometimes up to 3 to 5 hours before the hurricane center arrives at those locations. This flooding causes major damage to both small and large building structures alike in the coastal regions, specifically the lower floors of these structures. The flooding extends to far inland, especially for areas lower than 10 feet above average sea level. Examples of category four hurricanes: Hurricane Luis in 1995 (Leeward Islands), and Hurricanes Felix and Opal in 1995.

Category Five Hurricane

A category five hurricane consists of winds rotating at more than 155 miles per hour. It has the potential to create storm surges greater than 18 feet above the usual rise of water. Category five hurricanes generally cause massive structural damage to both small and large buildings. For instance, there may be complete roof structure failures, severe and extensive damage to doors and windows, and small buildings may even be completely blown away. Category five hurricanes also usually completely destroy unanchored items and fixtures such as shrubbery, trees, even mobile homes, road signs and anything else that are unanchored and is exposed to the storm. Category five hurricanes usually cause some flooding along coastal and nearby low-lying regions, sometimes up to 3 to 5 hours before the hurricane center arrives at those locations. This flooding causes major damage to both small and large building structures alike in the coastal regions, specifically the lower floors of these structures, that lie less than 15 feet above average sea level and within 500 yards (or 457.2 meters) of the coastline. In the case of category five hurricanes, massive evacuations are required for all areas on low ground within 5 to 10 miles of the coastline. Examples of category five hurricanes: Hurricane Mitch, 1998 (western Caribbean), and Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, which is the strongest Atlantic hurricane to date.

Areas prone to hurricanes

The country most often affected by hurricanes is the United States of America, with the city of Cape Hatteras in the state of North Caroline being the number one hotspot for hurricanes. It is hit by hurricanes on an average of once every 1.36 years, with a whopping 104 hurricanes since 1871. Second on the list is Morehead City, also from North Carolina. It is affected by hurricanes on an average of once every 1.53 years, with 92 encounters since 1871. In third place is Grand Bahama Island, in the Bahamas. It is affected by hurricanes on an average of once every 1.60 years, with 88 encounters since 1871. However, South Florida is the region that has experienced some of the most damaging hurricanes in history. Since hurricanes tend to form in large, bodies of warm water, we can narrow down the possibilities to just seven different basins of water. Within this seven, some are much more active, resulting in a higher frequency of formation of hurricanes. In addition to this, all hurricanes form at least several degrees away from the equator, because the Coriolis force is too weak there to create enough spin momentum for the hurricane to form. So it can be said that to ensure that you never have to encounter a hurricane, all you need to do is to relocate to somewhere near the equator. The following is a list of the seven basins of water that are prone to hurricanes, together with some information regarding the common hurricane seasons in those areas:

  • Northwest Pacific Ocean

Typhoon season for the Northwest Pacific Ocean takes place all year round. It is the most active basin in the entire world, with most of the typhoons there forming from July up until November. Typhoons formed here usually affect Southeast Asia (e.g. China, Japan and Taiwan) and also the Philippines.

  • Eastern North Pacific Ocean

Hurricane season for the Eastern North Pacific Ocean lasts from 15 May to 30 November. It is the second most active basin in the world, with hurricanes moving into the open eastern Pacific Ocean, sometimes hitting Hawaii and western Mexico.

  • North Atlantic Ocean

Hurricane season for the North Atlantic Ocean lasts from 1 June to 30 November, with the peak of activity around the period from the middle of August to the later part of October. Hurricanes that form in the North Atlantic Ocean usually affect the Caribbean, eastern Canada, Bermuda, Florida, Cuba, Central America, the Gulf coasts of the USA, and Mexico

  • Arabian Sea

Cyclone season in the Arabian Sea lasts from 1 April to 30 December, with peaks from around the middle of April to May, and from the middle of September until the middle of December. The Arabian Sea has an extended cyclone season and two different peak periods because the monsoon trough moves through it two times in a year, hence causing a cyclone season twice as long as usual.

  • Southwest Pacific Ocean

Cyclone season in the Southwest Pacific Ocean lasts from 15 October to 1 May. Cyclones formed here mostly affect eastern Australia.

  • Southeast Indian Ocean

Cyclone season in the Southeast Indian Ocean lasts from around 15 October to May, with peaks in the middle of January, and also from the middle of February until early March. Cyclones formed in this basin usually affect western and northern Australia.

  • Southwest Indian Ocean

Cyclone season in the Southwest Indian Ocean typically last from 15 October until 15 May, with peaks in the middle of January and again from the middle of February until early March. Cyclones formed in this area usually affect south eastern Africa and Madagascar.

Hurricane naming – why are hurricanes given names

When a hurricane has winds exceeding 39 miles per hour, it is given a name. It seems a funny thing to do, giving these devastating natural disasters names, but it is done for a practical reason. At times, there are multiple hurricanes present, creating confusion for people who may want to study or track them. Hence, in 1979, people started to name hurricanes in order to make it easier to keep track of them. The names are also helpful in facilitating geographic referencing, warning services and even for legal issues. It was really just a very practical solution. The committee in charge of the names decided to have 6 lists of names, including both male and female English, French or Spanish names that alternate, beginning in alphabetical order. For example, the current list of storm names for 2013 will be repeated in 2019, with the name starting with ‘A’ used for the first storm of the year, and so on. In the event that all the names are used up within the year, and there are still more hurricanes, names will be given following the Greek alphabet – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and so on. When a storm is unusually massive, causing substantial damage or a high death count, the name will be retired (i.e. it will not be used to name any other hurricane in the future, not even after 6 years). Two notable retired names are Andrew (1992) and Katrina (2005). In such an event, the committee holds a meeting to decide on a replacement for the name on the list.

Being prepared for a hurricane

So now we come to the most important part of this article – how can you prepare yourself for a hurricane? Or how should you react in the event that you are facing a hurricane? This is extremely important knowledge, especially for those who live in regions prone to having hurricanes. The knowledge of how to be prepared or how to react can very well make the difference between life and death. This section will be divided into two sections – what to do when a hurricane watch or warning is issued, and what to do during a hurricane.

What to do when a hurricane watch or warning is issued

Government and weather agencies in all or most countries have technology to predict hurricanes in advance, usually about one or two days in advance. These give us a small but crucial window of time for us to evacuate or to take precautions in areas that will be affected, enabling us to protect our lives and prevent our property from being damaged. There are two different types of alerts regarding hurricanes – a hurricane watch and a hurricane warning. A hurricane watch informs you that there is a chance for a hurricane to occur, due to present weather conditions. A hurricane warning means that a hurricane has been spotted, or that it is about to occur. In the event that a hurricane watch is issued, monitor the weather and be prepared to take action immediately. It is also important to have plans of action in mind that you can take immediately in the event that a hurricane warning is issued. It is wise to secure everything that might be blown or torn loose and becoming flying objects that can damage property and injure people. Such items include garbage cans and lawn furniture. You should also trim dead branches and/or cut down dead trees so as to reduce the likelihood of these falling onto your house during a hurricane, and hence causing damage to your property. Another useful precaution to take is to stock up on water, canned food, dried food and heating fuel to ensure that you and your family will have adequate food and water for a period of time if you are, for some reason, trapped in your house. It is also wise to stock up on battery-powered or wind-up flashlights and radios, along with some extra batteries since, in the event of a hurricane, power lines are likely to be damaged, hence cutting off the power from your house. Put all these into an emergency backpack that you can easily grab and head to safety in the event of a hurricane. A hurricane warning is more urgent. In the event that a hurricane warning is issued, you MUST take action immediately. Put your previously prepared plans of action into action. Grab any emergency kits you have prepared and head to safety at once. This is especially so for those who live in coastal regions or in a low-lying area in close proximity to the coast. These people must be especially prepared to move further inland and to higher ground if need be, as storm surges will flood these areas.

What to do during a hurricane

Do not go out into the open to watch the storm. Stay in a safe place, and stay vigilant and listen for reports from authorities from a battery-operated radio. Avoid using land-line telephones. Only use your cellular telephones. Do not risk going outdoors, not even to find food. To prevent having to do so, make sure that you stock up regularly on canned and dried foods, and water. Even if storms die down for periods of time, even up to half an hour, remain in a safe place and do not go out. It may just be that the eye of the storm is passing over. If you go outside, you risk facing the other end of the hurricane as it approaches. For those who may own life stock, it may be better to leave them unsheltered instead of putting them into barns and stables since these structures may not be able to withstand the winds of a hurricane. For example, during Hurricane Andrew, some horses left outside in the open suffered less injury than those placed in stables since some stables collapsed on them. For those who live in mobile homes, it is recommended that you park your mobile home near a hill or a clump a trees, or any other natural structure that can break wind and minimize the pressure on your mobile home. Anchor your mobile home securely to the ground with secure tie-down systems. If the hurricane is too severe, seek shelter in a more secure building. There are other precautionary steps you can take to protect yourself as well. Research has led to discovery of more secure ways to build structures. For instance, adding grooves to a nail can help it to hold the roof down better in the event of a hurricane. Hurricane straps can also be used for the same purpose – to secure your roofs. You can also consider installing impact resistant glass for the windows and doors in your homes and offices, which are less likely to shatter during a hurricane. In addition to the impact resistant glass, you can also consider installing hurricane shutters, which provide even greater protection for your doors and windows.

Tools used to track hurricanes

The most common, and most useful, tool used to track hurricanes is a satellite. It uses visible and infrared imagery to track hurricanes anywhere all over the world, determining the structure, path (using visible images), temperature and intensity (using infrared images) of the hurricane. Satellites can also harness infrared sensors to study temperatures in the basin of water where the hurricane is, to determine how much heat energy is available for the hurricane, hence enabling forecasters to have a good estimate of the potential of the hurricane to do damage. Another useful piece of equipment is the Doppler radar. It can detect rainfall from hurricanes, providing estimates on rainfall amounts in certain regions. This helps forecasters to have a good estimate of where exactly the hurricane eye and eye wall are. The radar also helps forecasters determine the movement of the hurricanes, and provides useful estimates of wind speeds. Some even use aircraft to provide extra information on hurricanes. Termed reconnaissance aircraft, these enforced radar and technologically advanced military aircraft, manned by pilots of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and also by some Air Force reserve pilots, are flown to monitor hurricane activity. Their aim is to collect data such as wind speed, wind direction, air pressure, air temperature, and altitude. They also engage in coastal and aeronautical charting, which is much easier from the aerial perspective. One other useful piece of technology is the data buoy. These data buoys are situated along the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific seaboards, and also throughout the Gulf of Mexico. They use satellites and radio signals to communicate information about wind speed, air pressure, wave conditions, and air and water temperature. With this information, forecasters can predict and monitor hurricane activity.

References


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