News Stories

How Hurricanes Get Big

What creates a Katrina? - Hurricane season is starting up again, and scientists are launching a major field project next month in the tropical Atlantic Ocean to solve a central mystery of hurricanes: Why do certain clusters of tropical thunderstorms grow into the often-deadly storms while many others dissipate? The results should eventually help forecasters provide more advance warning to those in harm's way. It turns out that one of the things that causes hurricanes to grow is phyloplankton, which is an essential ingredient for the fish we eat and the air we breathe. But too much of it can lead to BIGGER storms.

Researcher Christopher Davis says, "One of the great longstanding mysteries about hurricanes is how they form. There are clusters of thunderstorms every day in the tropics, but we don't know why some of them develop into hurricanes while others don't. We need to anticipate hurricane formation to prepare for hazards that could develop several days later."

It turns out that the changes in ocean color caused by concentrations of these drifting plants and plant-like organisms could impact the formation of tropical storms in the Pacific Ocean, according to a recent study by Anand Gnanadesikan at NOAA, who says, "Whipping up tropical storms to terrorize the Pacific Rim might have one easy step: Just add phytoplankton."

This is because Without phytoplankton, the sun's rays penetrate deep into the ocean, leaving the surface water cold. Cool water has less energy than warm water, producing less violent hurricanes.

PhysOrg.com quotes Gnanadesikan as saying, "We think of the oceans as blue, but the oceans aren't really blue, they're actually a sort of greenish color. The fact that [the oceans] are not blue has a [direct] impact on the distribution of tropical cyclones." the absence of chlorophyll in subtropical waters affects hurricane formation by modifying air circulation and heat distribution patterns. One way to think about it is: "Green water in the morning may be a warning."

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