Climate Change: Part 4 – How Storms & Hurricanes Form

This miniseries is a layman’s explanation of the causes of Climate Change and its effects upon Global Warming.

The formation of storms and hurricanes are largely a mystery to most people. This post will attempt to explain how they are formed in light of the recent rash of hurricanes that have threatened and damaged this nation resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and loss of life. They occur worldwide though under other names such as typhoons and cyclones. Damage to undeveloped nations can be catastrophic and take many decades to recover from. I will attempt to take some of the mystery out of them and how Climate Change may have played a role.

The formation of Clouds

Storms are the accumulation of energy in the air and the instability caused when there is a difference in energy distribution in the atmosphere. This instability is most often caused by a difference in temperature distribution but it can also be differences in air mass or density. Energy is potentially stored in the atmosphere by light particles or moisture since this is far more massive than air molecules and thus able to store much higher concentrations of energy. Enormous amounts of energy can be stored in highly moisturized air, but as long as this energy is distributed fairly homogeneously nothing happens except perhaps high humidity and fog. So very moist humidity areas will not necessarily result in the formation of storms. But when there are large temperature gradients, representing high energy and air mass imbalances in the atmosphere, it can cause often rapid air movement. Then this stored energy together with more source of moisture to feed in more energy, such as an ocean or sea water or other isolated region of such air that grow and join together, can start to take on a life of its own and amplify this movement in a positive feedback loop as it picks up more moisture from large bodies of water and further moving this massive moist air mass up into the atmosphere. Moisture starts condensing into tiny droplets as it moves above a certain altitude where temperatures are below the dew point forming clouds.

Other Storms Not Based upon Moisture

Dry hot air can also pick up heated sand practical from the ground which adds more energy mass to the surrounding air-dust mass create huge sandstorm from tiny particles of hot sand containing huge amounts of energy in an avalanche picking up even larger and more energy packed grains of sand from dry sand covered landscapes. This energy then gets passed on to the surrounding air molecules resulting in huge prolonged sandstorms such as in the Gobi Desert in northern China that drop sand all over that region annually and turn the sky yellow a thousand miles away.

Snowstorms are similar to sandstorms where lightweight and loose snowflakes are picked up by winds from the large open snow ridden landscape heating the cooler air around causing instability and turbulent snowstorms and whiteouts.

But sand and snow storms are confined to only a few areas because there are so few places with large wide expands of sand or snow whereas two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered with water. So storms like hurricanes due to moisture are by far the most prevalent and largest source of stormy weather events experienced by people on a large scale.

Formation of Storms

So how do large storms and hurricanes develop? Energy imbalance creates stormes. Large bodies of water are needed to fuel storms. Large bodies of warm water are needed to supercharge huge and powerful storms. Keep in mind that everywhere there is cold air at higher altitudes. But there isn’t always a source of warm water everywhere. Most warm waters can be found around the equator where the sun’s energy passes through the least amount of atmosphere to the water below warming it near the surface where evaporation occurs. So it is near the equator that most major storms first start forming. Sometimes warm ocean currents can form storm further away from the equator. As evaporation occurs convection winds blow it to higher and cooler altitudes until it is below the dew point temperature in which the air can no longer hold moisture in molecular form and it condenses out into tiny droplets forming clouds. As more moisture is added to these clouds the clouds grow then coalesce becoming larger and higher and the droplets eventually freeze at the higher altitudes forming cumulous clouds of ice crystals at high altitudes. These storms can dump enormous amounts of rain and create large storms.

Formation of Hurricane

The earth rotates on its axis results in the equator moves much faster than the poles. There is some air slippage means that the atmosphere tries to stand still as the earth rotates below. But since the atmosphere is such a thin layer less than 10 mile thick compared to the earth’s radius of 3,960 miles that slippage isn’t very large or we would have a perpetual wind over the equatorial region. Surface friction tends to pull the atmosphere along with the surface of the earth. So the air above also moves faster at the equator than at the poles.

The earth rotates from the east to west in the U.S. If a storm is large and dense enough with storm clouds large enough the earth’s rotation can cause the outer southern parts of the storm closer to the equator to rotate faster than in the outer northern side closest to the North Pole in a counterclockwise direction in the northern hemisphere. In other word since the part of the storm closest to the equator moves the fastest and the part closest to the north pole moves the slowest the storm will rotate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere. This is called the Coriolis effect. It is the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere.

Tropical depressions are formed around the equatorial regions where the waters are warmest and evaporation the highest. Storm are not yet well organized. As more and more ocean moisture gets added to such large formations they gather in more moisture and energy. Some tropical depression can join together to form much larger depressions. Some migrate towards cooler waters where there is greater energy imbalance causing wind to pick up and draw up more cooler moisture adding more energy and instability while Coriolis forces increase spiraling the tropical depression onto a tropical storm with its typical hurricane spiral formation. The pressure towards the center of the storm becomes lower than the rest of the storm as more cool moisture is sucked up from the ocean below and the spiral compresses more energy towards the center of the spiral and shoots it upwards towards the center to the top of the spiral clouds creating a low pressure at center. As the center rotates faster the rain is tossed outward from the center forming a cylindrical wall of moisture forming the characteristic eye of the storm clear of rain and clouds that is relatively calm because of the absence of energy and mass from the storm. The air pressure and mass is quite low at the eye.

A Category 1 hurricane is defined when one of these tropical storms has maximum sustained winds of 75 mph. A Category 5 hurricane has maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and will cause catastrophic damage. As hurricanes hit landfall the lack of moisture and the friction of land causes the wind speeds to decrees rapidly causing them to die unless they head back out to sea.

It should be noted that hurricanes and typhoons (they are actually the same thing but named differently in different parts of the word) happens only on the eastern sides of continents for the U.S. Weather typically moves towards the continent (leading edge) due to the rotation of the earth from east to west in the U.S. The western sides of large continents (trailing edge) are dryer where weather generally moves from the continental land mass to the ocean so have less moisture forming clouds. That, in a nutshell, is how storms and hurricanes are formed.

Climate Change

Climate Change causes the oceans to warm up producing more warmer waters and larger amounts of evaporative moisture energy. This results in the formation of more frequent and larger tropical storms and hurricanes as we have been seeing as one after another tropical depression at the equator turns into a storm and then a major hurricane as it heading up north towards the southeastern part of our continents. The reverse is true in the Southern Hemisphere.

One must not forget what happens to the central areas of large land masses. Climate Change also heats up land masses causing high pressure regions that push low pressure moist areas away causing extreme relentless dry and hot climates. As Climate Change because more extreme larger expands of extreme drought we exist where no rain or life will survive. These will be areas of dead deserts where huge sandstorms will become a common occurrence. They will make Death Valley today look like paradise. Temperatures could hit 140 degrees F in the daytime and 120 degrees at night. This could be how the central continental U.S. could look like in a hundred years. M

The West Coast would also be in perpetual drought with temperatures around 120 degrees F like living in Death Valley in 100 years due to the perpetual high pressure central part of the continent. Maybe there would be a little rain during winter seasons. All low lying coastal areas below 20 feet would of course be under water.

Links to this Miniseries:-

  1. Climate Change: Part 1 – The Fundamentals
  2. Climate Change: Part 2  – Greenhouse Gases
  3. Climate Change: Part 3 – Runaway Climate Change
  4. Climate Change: Part 4 – How Storms & Hurricanes Form


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3 Responses to Climate Change: Part 4 – How Storms & Hurricanes Form

  1. Pingback: Climate Change: Part 3 – Runaway Climate Change | ouR Social Conscience

  2. Pingback: Climate Change: Part 2 – Greenhouse Gas Emissions | ouR Social Conscience

  3. Pingback: Climate Change: Part 1 – The Fundamentals | ouR Social Conscience

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