8.4 Hurricanes

The most dramatic examples of low pressure systems leading to storms and rain are hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons. All three of these terms describe the same atmospheric processes and the same types of storms; it’s just that different terminology is used in different parts of the world. In the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific, the storms are called hurricanes, in the Indian and South Pacific Oceans they are referred to as cyclones, and they are called typhoons in the Northwest Pacific.

Hurricanes begin as low pressure systems formed over warm, tropical water. They only form in tropical regions because they need the heat from the warm water to fuel the storm. The warm, moist air rises, cools, and condenses, forming rain, and the condensation releases more latent heat into the atmosphere. This heat causes even more air to rise and condense, further fueling the storm.

As the air rises towards the center of the storm, more warm tropical air rushes in to replace it, causing very strong winds. But the air does not move directly towards the center of the storm. Because of the large size of hurricanes, the air rushing towards the center will be deflected by the Coriolis Effect, causing the entire storm to rotate. In the Northern Hemisphere that deflection is to the right, causing Northern Hemisphere hurricanes to rotate counterclockwise. In the Southern Hemisphere, the winds are deflected to the left, leading to a clockwise rotation (Figure 8.4.1).


Figure 8.4.1 Hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere rotate counterclockwise (left, Hurricane Daniel, 2006), as air rushes towards the center and is deflected to the right by the Coriolis Effect. In the Southern Hemisphere, hurricanes rotate clockwise as the Coriolis deflection is to the left (right, Cyclone Yasi, 2011) (Modified by PW; Daniel image by NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC; Yasi image by NASA; MODIS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

The violent winds characteristic of hurricanes are the result of the spiraling air that is moving towards the center of the storm, and once its winds exceed 74 mph the storm officially becomes a hurricane. At the very center of the hurricane, the pressure is so low that cool, dry air from the upper atmosphere get sucked downwards, leading to a central region of calm, clear skies; the hurricane’s eye (Figure 8.4.2).


Figure 8.4.2 Hurricane structure. Air rising in the center of the hurricane is replaced by warm air moving inwards, and the Coriolis Effect deflects the winds, causing the storm to rotate. In the eye, the extreme low pressure causes cool, dry air to sink, creating calm, clear conditions within the eye (By Kelvinsong (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Hurricanes in the North Atlantic form as tropical storms over the warm water off of the African coast, and are moved east to west by the trade winds (Figure 8.4.3). As the storms move west over the tropical ocean, their energy increases until they reach hurricane status. As they approach the Caribbean, the Coriolis Effect deflects their path to the right, causing them to move towards the north (Figure 8.4.3). Eventually hurricanes might make landfall, causing extensive damage to coastal areas through the high winds, rain, and flooding. However, hurricanes often die out fairly soon after reaching land. When a storm moves over land it becomes cut off from the warm moist ocean air that has sustained it. Without that fuel source, the storm loses power and begins to dissipate.


Figure 8.4.3 Hurricane tracks in the North Atlantic from 1980-2005. Hurricanes begin near the coast of Africa and are blown westward by the trade winds. Coriolis deflection causes them to take a northward path as they approach the Caribbean (By Nilfanion [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

A similar pattern occurs in the Pacific and in the Southern Hemisphere. The trade winds move the storms from east to west, and they are deflected as they approach the coasts; to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere (Figure 8.4.4).


Figure 8.4.4 Global hurricane/cyclone tracks 1985-2005. Hurricanes move west via the trade winds, and their paths are deflected away from the equator in both hemispheres as they approach the continents (Background image: NASA this version: Nilfanion [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

While the very high winds and intense rain of hurricanes can cause significant damage, in many cases it is the storm surge that leads to the most death and destruction. The storm surge is a “hill” of water that forms on the ocean surface below a hurricane. The surge is the result of two processes; a small hill is produced due to the extreme low pressure in the eye of a hurricane, which pulls water upwards towards the eye, creating a pressure surge. A larger surge is produced by the winds blowing and piling up water in the direction the storm is traveling (Figure 8.4.5). As the hurricane makes landfall, the effect of the storm surge is equivalent to a very large and sudden rise in sea level as the surge moves over the land, causing extensive flooding.


Figure 8.4.5 Storm surges are created by hurricanes and move with the storm, causing a rapid rise in sea level when they reach shore. Pressure surges are due to the low pressure within the hurricane’s eye, wind-driven surges are a product of high winds piling up water (By Howcheng. Original graphic by Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

In 1970 the Bhola Cyclone struck Bangladesh with a 40 ft. storm surge, leading to the death of about 500,000 people, the deadliest hurricane in history. The east coast of the United States was hit by the New England Hurricane of 1938, which had a 16 ft. storm surge and left almost 700 people dead.

Preventing Storm Surge Damage

In response to the hurricane-related tragedies like those listed above, may cities have built hurricane barriers designed to reduce the flooding and damage associated with storm surges. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island, USA, was submerged under 13 feet of water during the Great New England hurricane of 1938, and was flooded again following Hurricane Carol in 1954. In the 1960s the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier was constructed at the mouth of the Providence River. It consists of a high wall with three “doors” that are left open under normal conditions, but can be closed during a hurricane to prevent a storm surge of up to 20.5 feet from inundating the city (Figure 8.4.6, left). A related concept is seen in the storm surge barrier on the Hollandse IJssel river in the Netherlands, where the barrier is lowered to prevent flooding (Figure 8.4.6, right).


Figure 8.4.6 The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence, RI, USA (left) and the surge barrier on the Hollandse IJssel river in southern Holland. (Fox Point by Marcbela (Marc N. Belanger) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Dutch barrier by Mark Voorendt (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons).




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Introduction to Oceanography Copyright © by Paul Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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