Knowing If A Hurricane Will Hit You

This article discusses how meteorologists track hurricanes and how to know if one will strike a particular area.

How do you know if a hurricane will hit your area? The truth is: there is no hard and fast way to know. That's the short answer. Meteorology has come a long way since the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, and caused between 8,000 and 12,000 fatalities. However, even with all the science and technology at their disposal, meteorologists still have to rely on very educated guesses to track hurricanes.

Hurricanes are huge storms, often measuring hundreds of miles in diameter, and contain strong thunderstorms, high winds and torrential rains. They usually occur in subtropical or tropical waters "" the warmer, the better "" and are most common from June through November, for Atlantic hurricanes. The official meteorological term for them is "tropical cyclones," since there is a defined circulation within the storm, giving them their classic shape.

Tropical cyclones would be mostly aimless wanderers in the ocean, if there were nothing to steer them along. They are rather like pinballs "" they must hit an air current or pressure system to move about. This is one reason they are so difficult to track. Meteorologists today have computers that forecast the movements of steering features: high-and-low-pressure systems, for instance, but these movements are not exact. Systems can speed up or slow down, thus affecting their interaction with the hurricane at any given point. When a system "bumps" the hurricane can well determine whether it stays on a particular course, or whether it makes the storm veer to one direction or another.



Another factor that determines hurricane movement is the size of the storm, as well as its intensity. Large, powerful hurricanes tend to go through intensification cycles where they will lose strength, then regain it several hours later. The eyewall of the storm also goes through such cycles. This causes the characteristic "wobble" that hurricane trackers talk about when trying to anticipate whether the eye is wobbling because of a regeneration cycle, or if it is signaling a true change in direction. If a steering current bumps a hurricane when it is in a weaker stage, it may have more effect on direction than if it hits during an intense phase. Since it is nearly impossible to predict when a hurricane will go through a cycle, or how long it will last, scientists have yet another obstacle in their quest to predict where a hurricane will hit.

Meteorologists generally combine technology and their experience in tracking these monster storms to ferret out a likely track. They often use several computer models to forecast the track, and take the consensus view, since these models may have widely divergent tracks. Forecasts, obviously, are usually more accurate in the short-term, but long-term forecasts must be made as well, when the storm is in danger of hitting land.

The National Hurricane Center/Tropical Prediction Center in Miami, Florida, is responsible for tracking hurricanes in the eastern Pacific and Atlantic oceans during hurricane season. They issue forecasts, watches, warnings, tracks and discussions on tropical cyclones. They are helped in their mission by the fabled aircraft reconnaissance units: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) P-3 Orion planes, from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa; and the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron "Hurricane Hunters," based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. These units work together to coordinate recon flights into the very center of a hurricane. They drop instrument buoys and record information such as wind speed; all to help the folks at the NHC track the storms.

The Tropical Prediction Center Web site tracks all tropical cyclones online from birth until they dissipate, either over water or over land. The amateur can find all kinds of information on this Web site about tracking hurricanes and the storms themselves. Since hurricanes are such large storms, they can affect the weather for several hundred miles all around them, so even if a person's town isn't in the direct path of the eye, that area may get torrential rain and high winds, all the same.

A hurricane watch means that hurricane conditions are possible within the next 36 hours. A hurricane warning means hurricane conditions are possible within 24 hours. These are usually issued when the NHC has a fairly firm track on the storm.

The best way to prepare for a hurricane is to stay informed about the storm's progress and to heed the warnings posted by the NHC.

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