Ask A Hurricane Hunter

We try to answer all of our e-mail (but don't expect an answer at 10 pm Sunday night for homework due Monday!) Here is a sample.
  • Teachers: we don't have the time to take e-mails from everyone in your class -- BUT we are more than happy to answer a group e-mail (e.g. 5 or so of your students' most interesting questions).
  • Students: Start with our FAQ page, and our Homework Help page for links to some great websites!
  • All questions are thoughtfully pondered posted Feb 20, 2002
  • How long does the eye last?
  • When is the best time for a hurricane to hit (re:tides)?
  • Help us build a simulated hurricane
    Earlier Postings:
  • Difference between hurricanes in Florida and Australia
  • Is the sea calm in the eye?
  • Why isn't plane torn apart?
  • What classes should I take to be a Hurricane Hunter?
  • Is our cruise safe from hurricanes?
  • Tell me everything about hurricanes
  • Where to go to school?
  • Settle this dispute...
  • How far inland can storm surge be a problem?
  • Why is the eye calm?
  • How is a hurricane tamed?
  • What are you thinking?
  • Differences between typhoons and hurricanes
  • Which part of Florida is safer?
  • How do I become a Hurricane Hunter?
  • Science Fair Project
  • How wide?
  • Why so many this year?
  • Warm as bath water?
    ??? Ask Your Own Question.

    Can you tell me about how long the eye of a hurricane lasts ( in general)?
    A hurricane may sustain an eye for several days. But I suspect what you are asking is, how long you might be in the eye if you were sitting in one place as the hurricane passed over you. That is a function of three things:
    1. How fast is the hurricane moving? Most hurricanes may move along at 10-20 mph, but in extreme cases, they could be moving as fast at 40 mph (pretty rare), or go much more slowly, or even stall out ("quasi-stationary", we say).
    2. How big is the eye? The average eye would be 10-40 miles in diameter, but the extremes would be 5-60 miles wide (I've seen a satellite photo where the eye was over 80 miles wide, but I can't say what the record would be... if you're curious, you might try looking for this at HRD's FAQ page).
    3. How close did the exact center of the eye come to you? Obviously, if the exact center of the eye comes across your location, you will be in the eye longer than if you are just brushed by the edge of the eye. It is important to realize that most people who are "hit" by a hurricane never actually get into the eye at all, because the storm itself is so large compared to the eye. But of course, those who do encounter the eye also usually get the worst winds, too, because they go through the eyewall... twice!
    Anyway, assuming the exact center passes over you, in an average case: 30 mile wide / 10 mph = 3 hours. How long would you be in the eye if the same storm were only moving 5 mph? Or if it were moving 20 mph? You can do the math on many different scenarios and see how important it is that we have a good handle on the speed of these storms... and also see why it is "dangerous" to go outside during the calm of the eye--because you just can't be sure when all of the sudden--WHAM!--the eyewall on the other side of the eye arrives, and catches you outdoors (and throws shards of glass at you with 100 mph winds).

    If a hurricane with a storm surge of 4 feet had hit Jacksonville in November what would have been the worst date for it to have hit and what would have been the best date for it to have it? Why? Use these topics in your answer:

  • High tide on that day
  • Low tide on that day
  • Phase of the moon
    The idea behind this problem is that "storm tide" is the combination of storm surge and the astronomical (normal) tide. (See the NHC definitions at their glossary page). I presume you've been studying tides, and you should be familiar with the terms "spring tide" and "neap tide". When would you expect the highest high tide and the lowest low tide? These both happen with one of the above tides. Obviously, the best TIME for it to hit would be when you have the lowest low tide (then the effect of the storm surge is less), but since you also would have the highest high tide on the same day, that might not be a "good" DAY for the hurricane to hit, because if it hits just a few hours later or earlier than the low tide, then you have a big problem... so you might want to pick the other type of tide, when there is very little variation in tide throughout the day...
    So, look up the concepts of spring and neap tides, and this will also explain what phases of the moon are associated with each... then, you need to find out what day(s) in November that these occur... there are many websites which give you the phases of the moon; one of my favorites you can find by searching under the terms "moonrise Navy". Then you might want to see if you can find a website that has the tide tables for Jacksonville, and double-check your answer!
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    We are doing a simulation of "The Great Storm of 2002". As part of this team effort we are asking if you can help us obtain information for our "fake" storm... radar images, maps, facts, table of the most devastating hurricanes...
    Start with the National Hurricane Center's Hurricane Awareness page for some basics. You can find the most devastating hurricanes by looking at the historical hurricanes page for "deadliest", "costliest", and "most intense" hurricanes. If you pick a hurricane that struck within the past few years, you can find the "preliminary reports" at the same page, to get details from a particular storm (it will give you all sorts of stats regarding the meteorology, forecasts, and the impact of that hurricane). Some of these reports may include one or two satellite or radar pictures, such as the page for Hurricane Andrew. Also very interesting is the "product archives"... here you'll find the actual forecasts and the discussion bulletins issued throughout the storm's life cycle, and you can use these, too, to build up a day-by-day simulation. At the HRD FAQ website, you'll see that some folks consider that the Great Miami Hurricane in the 1920's would be by far more expensive than Andrew, if it hit today: it followed a similar track, except it directly struck Miami, and directly struck New Orleans. This may give you some idea of how bad it can get. You may also want to look at the Red Cross and FEMA websites to learn more about the preparation side of things. If you really want to get deep into it, UCAR has built a web-based tutorial for emergency managers which is free to use for non-profit/educational purposes.

    Is there any difference between hurricanes in Florida and hurricanes in Australia?
    They are the same, except ones south of the equator (such as Australia) spin the other direction, due to the direction the Coriolis effect acts on things down there. But they are the same in every other way. They are called Tropical Cyclones there (don't let anyone tell you they are called "Willy-willies"... NOT TRUE!). You can see the Aussie website, and if you want to see a cool track of a Tropical Cyclone in Australia, go the Unisys site, click on the South Pacific for the year 2000, and look for Cyclone Steve!

    I understand that the air is relatively calm inside the eye. Is the sea calm? Or is the sea still very very wild with huge waves? Is the sea any more calm inside the eye than directly outside the eye wall?
    It really depends on the size and strength of the storm. We definitely see the water get calmer as we exit the eyewall, and fly towards the center of the eye. In some of the larger eyes, and especially in the weaker storms, we may have an area 10 - 40 miles wide where we see little or no white caps... it is rarely, if ever, glassy smooth out there, and you'll probably see some swells. In the stronger storms with smaller eyes, it never goes calm, and you'll see white caps all the way through the eye, except they are coming from the opposite direction as you cross the center. The most dramatic one I remember was a very strong Cat 5 "supertyphoon", with a small eye (probably about 8-10 miles across), and huge waves (with shadows behind them) inside the eye... but there was a small cloud below us at the exact center of the eye, and although we could see these big waves converging at that spot, we couldn't see what was happening... would they collide and slosh around there? I don't know, nor would I ever want to be on a boat to find out.

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    My son Craig is doing a science project. The original question he had was what keeps the planes from disintegrating in the extreme conditions when flying into the eye of a hurricane.
    All airplanes are built tough to withstand quite a bit of stress from things such as turbulence and taking off and landing. The C-130 is especially rugged because it was built to land on short, dirt runways... you often see pictures of them on the news delivering relief supplies to places that were just hit with a disaster such as an earthquake or flood. All planes can also fly through a lot of wind. The jet stream is a river of air at high altitudes, where the winds can be 200 mph or more; that is as strong as the strongest hurricanes, yet airliners fly safely through it every day. Just think of this: the airplane is flying at 300 or perhaps even 500 mph, so it has to be built to withstand air flowing around it at least that fast, even if there is no wind at all! So they are built to be "streamlined", which means the wind flows smoothly around the plane. It isn't as bad for our airplane to fly through the hurricane as it is for a house to be hit by one, because the house is not supposed to move, and so it takes the full brunt of the wind, and the flat walls and edges of the roof are not "streamlined". Our airplane can ride up and down and from side to side when it gets pushed by the winds and turbulence, so it isn't torn apart. But it can be bumpy! It is like the story about the tree that bends with the wind can survive, while the tree that tries to keep straight gets broken.

    im going into the 9th grade and i would like to know what classes to prepare for to become a hurricane hunter.
    It is less important what classes you take, more important that you finish school and get decent grades (that doesn't mean you have to get straight-A's, but the better your grades, the more options you have, both as a Hurricane Hunter and in anything else you might want to do). All of our jobs require that you have at least a High School education, and most require a college degree. You can see more about the specifics for each job under our "jobs" page; for example, the weather officer job requires a lot of math and physics.

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    We are thinking of taking a Caribbean cruise in June. How safe is the month of June as far as hurricanes are concerned? I live in Florida, but don't remember many hurricanes being in June. Hurricane Season runs from June 1st - Nov 30th, so there is a potential for tropical cyclones during that month, but you are correct that it is traditionally a "slow" month for such storms. If you want to see the statistics, this very question was just updated on the Hurricane Research Division's FAQ website, and you can also see some other hurricane climatology at USA Today. Since you live in the hurricane belt, you understand there's no guarantees in this business, but if you're concerned, you might also want to talk to your cruise company and ask them what they do if a tropical cyclone threatens.

    I am studying Hurricanes in Science and I need to find as much information as I can on Hurricanes ... that could possibly get me an A on my project. I mainly need to know HOW and WHERE hurricanes form. I am also wondering has a hurricane ever killed more than 1,000 people. I have heard that Hurricane Hazel killed over 600 people.
    Have you been to our Homework Help page? There are a lot of great websites linked there, starting with the USA Today website, which has plenty of basic info about hurricanes. And yes, there have been hurricanes which have killed more than 1000 people... our worst one in the US was the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, with perhaps 8000 people killed.... and you can see lists of the deadliest, most intense, and costliest hurricanes on the National Hurricane Center website. You should also check out the Hurricane Facts from HRD, which has a section on records, including the deadliest tropical cyclone of all, which makes our own Galveston hurricane look positively puny! Hurricane Mitch a couple years ago killed something like 10,000 people in Central America, too. You might also want to look at Dr Gray's website (Colorado State), and see a bit about the factors he uses to estimate how many hurricanes we might get in the next season, studying long-range climate indicators... this is very technical, and difficult to understand, but you might be able to get the idea without understanding all of it. The Univ of Illinois has another, more technical website about hurricanes, if you want more advanced information about them. Explore... Have fun!

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    I'm finishing my high school. I would like to study tornadoes, hurricanes and storms and I don't know where to go to study them.
    You can start by looking at the links to the meteorology departments of various universities. Some schools which specialize in tropical meteorology include Florida State University, Colorado State University, and the University of Hawaii. You should visit the University of Oklahoma website (which is near the National Severe Storms Laboratory) to see some of its hints for high school students. You will find that they recommend a strong background in math and physics. Also-- don't judge the quality of a university by the quality of its website! Some very good schools have very sparse looking websites, but these are a way for you to start collecting information. You should explore the reputation of the school, what it is best known for, and if it matches your interests and abilities. For example, some schools are more theoretical and require a higher level of math. However, most meteorology students do not specialize until they are working on advanced (graduate) degrees, but you may want to find a school that offers a course for their undergraduates in tropical or severe storms (and/or mesoscale meteorology) to see if this is something you want to focus on. Good luck!

    Help, my family and I are always arguing over what category 1964 storm Dora was when hit Jacksonville... Oh, and did it hit us once as a hurricane go back out to sea turn around and hit us again as a tropical storm -- they also have a few words over that one too.
    You can see a color-coded tracking chart at Unisys ... pay attention to the color codes, which show the intensity of the hurricane... it appears to be magenta when Dora hit NW Fla, which would make it a Cat 3 then.
    Whoever remembers it doubling back was partially correct, but it hadn't gone out to sea, but rather had gone inland, then came back eastward and passed to the north of its original landfall position before it headed back into the Atlantic. Interesting... you can see this for yourself at the Unisys site...

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    How far inland can storm surge be an immediate problem?
    It depends on how quickly the terrain rises along your shore... if it is a very low, flat area (like near a river basin), the storm surge would obviously reach a lot further inland than when it runs up against a steeply sloping shoreline. It doesn't act exactly like a tidal wave, but is a big dome of water perhaps 20 feet or so high... the record, according to the HRD FAQ page was 42 feet in Australia... the exact height of a storm surge depends upon so many factors: the strength of the hurricane, how quickly the hurricane is moving, what direction it is moving relative to the shoreline (is it coming straight in, or grazing along an angle?), how rapidly the sea floor is sloping along the shore, the shape of the shoreline, and the astronomical tide. Anything along the shore which isn't higher than the depth of the storm tide is at risk, which could be many miles in a very flat area... and also, keep in mind that the height of the storm surge does NOT include the height of the waves on top of it! USA Today has some good graphics and explanations on storm surge.

  • If you have a concern in a particular area, you should contact your local emergency management office... they may have already worked up surge maps which would show what areas would be at risk during various hurricane conditions. The NHC has preliminary reports from various hurricanes, which include some reports on storm surge.
  • As an aside, although storm surge is historically the biggest killer (responsible for some 300,000 deaths in a single tropical cyclone in Bangladesh); according to NWS, it turns out that inland flooding from heavy rainfall has been the biggest killer in the US in recent history: over half the fatalities come from people drowning in the floods after the storm, many of them in cars that get swept away when the drivers try to cross a flooded road... and worse yet, 75% of the children who die in the US hurricanes drown in fresh water flooding (in the cars, playing in flooded culverts, etc.).
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    Why is the eye calm?
    Easy question, not so easy to answer... you have to start by looking at the way the air flows into and around a hurricane.
    The center ("eye") of a hurricane is a low-pressure area. Air from outside the hurricane tries to move into the eye to equalize the pressure. What do you call air that moves? Wind!
    However, the air does not go in a straight line towards the eye. It flows in a curve because of the Coriolis force. This curve becomes even greater near the eye, and eventually the air ends up blowing in a circle around the eye. Most of the air never reaches the eye itself, but instead blows in this ring around the eye called the "eyewall". A lot of the air then flows upward in the eyewall, and exits the storm at the top Since the winds end up spinning in a ring around the eye, there isn't enough left to blow in the eye itself, and the eye is relatively calm.
    The more technical answer is that the circular wind flow in the eyewall is a balance between pressure gradient, Coriolis force, and centripetal force. Angular momentum is also a key factor.
    The air rising in the eyewall also explains why the eye is clear. When air rises, it cools. Cool air can't hold as much water vapor as warm air, so the extra water falls out of the rising air as rain. By the time the air reaches the top of the hurricane, it is much drier than it was at the surface. Most of the air flows away from the hurricane, but a little of it drops back down in the middle of the hurricane. Since this air is so dry, it makes the eye clear (it doesn't hold any water to make clouds with).

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    How is a hurricane tamed?
    We don't have any effective way to "tame" a hurricane; you can read about the various schemes that have been proposed in the Hurricane Research Division's FAQ page. The way hurricanes die off naturally are usually when they either lose their source of warm water (when they move over colder water or over land), or else run into unfavorable winds which either tear them apart (wind-shear), or lose the upper-air support (an anti-cyclone aloft acts as a chimney to help carry away the heat in the storm, but if the hurricane moves under an upper-air cyclone, it will weaken). You can find out more about the life cycles of hurricanes on the USA Today page.

    When you're doing your job flying through the hurricanes, what are some of the thoughts going through your minds???

    What are some differences between Atlantic and Pacific hurricanes?
    Hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific are exactly the same phenomenon. However, the seasons vary: the Atlantic season runs from June 1 - Nov 30, while the Eastern North Pacific runs from May 15 - Nov 30, and the Western North Pacific runs all year... the most will be found in the Western North Pacific, while the Eastern North Pacific (off the coast of Baja California) has the most forming in a smaller area (the most active tropical "cyclogenesis" (storm birth) region in the world).
    The Atlantic has an average of 9 named storms (tropical storm or hurricane), of which 6 are hurricanes, and 2 would be intense hurricanes (Cat 3 or stronger). The Atlantic has 11% of the world's tropical storms/hurricanes. The E. North Pacific has 16 named storms on average, of which 8 are hurricanes. It accounts for 17% of the world's activity. The W. North Pacific has 25 named storms, of which 18 are typhoons... (same thing as a hurricane, only they are occuring on the other side of the International Dateline). It has 33% of the world's activity. You can compare the amount of activity in each basin, and also what percentage of the tropical storms intensify into hurricanes or typhoons (70% for example, in the West Pac).

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    We are relocating to florida... which part of florida is the best to move to & which area of fla have the least amount of hurricaines?
    The USA Today website has a few charts which show the probabilities of hurricanes by month and by state, which may help you answer that question. Of course, there's no guarantees! The entire coastline is at risk, altho you are correct that some areas have historically had more hurricanes than others. You can also check with local emergency managers, and when you do start looking for homes, flood insurance will be a clue, and you can find out if you are at risk for a storm surge in that location (not a good thing!). Again, the local emergency managers (civil defense, or whatever they're called there) can help you learn where the riskier spots are.

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    What kind of education would a person need to become a Hurricane Hunter?
    Depends upon the crew position... at the very least, a high school education. For most of the jobs, a four-year college degree. The weather officer would need a lot of math and science (up through calculus and physics), while the pilot and navigator could have a degree in just about anything, but would have to have good grades. See our Jobs section for more!

    I am a mother of a 5th grader... I am at a loss!!! I don't know how to help him with hands on experiment so that he can learn about hurricanes. Any ideas???
    Answer: Check out the Discovery Channel website for a few ideas... If you come across anything else useful, please let me know, and we'll add it to our "homework help" section. Also, if you're curious how these projects are usually judged, check out a standard science fair judging form.

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    I would like to ask you if you know the diameter of the hurricanes floyd, hugo,andrew , and denis.
    Answer: The records, according to Chris Landsea's FAQ page, were Supertyphoon Tip (which also holds the record for lowest pressure) with a radius of gale-force winds of 675 miles... while Cyclone Tracy had gale-force winds that extended out only 30 miles.
    The diameter of the "gale force" and the "hurricane force" winds are important for warning ships in the path of the hurricane (how far away do they need to stay?), and also for warning people along the coast where the storm is expected to make landfall. These diameters are some of the things we measure during our flight patterns through all four sides of the storm. You can see these diameters for recent hurricanes by going to the National Hurricane Center , and clicking on the "Current Season Tropical Cyclone Archive" then go to the storm you want to study, and read through the Forecast Advisories. You will see that these diameters change throughout the storm's lifecycle. As the storm strengthens, the diameter of the stronger winds usually also expand, but as the storm weakens, the winds do NOT always shrink with the storm.
    The forecast advisories also specify the diameter of the eye, too. This would be of interest if you want to know where the ring of the very worst winds could be found, which is in the eyewall right around the eye. Again, there is no direct correlation between the size of the eye and the strength of the storm, but often when we see the eye shrink, it is a sign the storm is strengthening.

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    Can u tell me why this year, we seem to of had more storms/hurricanes throughout the world than usual?
    Answer: Depends upon where you're looking!
    The Atlantic basin was, indeed, more active this year than "average"... 8 hurricanes, while an average year has 6... What was unusual was how many of them became really strong hurricanes: an "average" year has 2 major hurricanes (Category 3 or greater: 111+ mph winds), while this year we had 5 storms that made it to Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale (130+ mph). This was very unusual. Look at the National Hurricane Center's review of the '99 season.
    On the other hand, the Eastern North Pacific had one of its most inactive periods on record: It had 9 / 6 / 2 (tropical storms / hurricanes / major hurricanes), compared to the long-term average of 16 / 9 / 4.
    The Western Pacific was average for named storms (25), and below average for typhoons (12 vs. the average of 18). See Unisys's tracks for 1999.
    Why? A lot of this has to do with global weather patterns... El Nino (and La Nina) will affect the hurricane activity differently in the various ocean basins around the world.... one area may be more active while another may be less active. For more information, go to

  • Factors affecting numbers of hurricanes (USA Today)
  • El Nino's Effects (HRD).
  • Dr Gray: Bigger, Badder Storm Era (USA Today)
  • Dr Gray's forecast (CSU, very technical)
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    What is the critical water temperature is to produce a Hurricane? What is a safe water temperature? How warm is the warmest temperature recorded?
    Answer: According to the USAF's "Forecasters Guide to Tropical Meteorology", in order to have an adequate source of surface energy, the ocean should be at least 79F (26C) or warmer. Furthermore, this layer of warm water should be at least 200 feet (60 m) deep (the hurricane can stir up the water, so it can kill itself by dredging up water that is too cool).
    A "safe" water temperature? Tropical-type storms have even been seen over the Arctic ocean (tho not necessarily true tropical systems)... In 1980, Hurricanes Karl and Ivan formed over water which was 73F and 68F, respectively. But its rare for anything truly tropical to form at temps much lower than that.
    Sometimes when a hurricane runs over a particularly warm spot in the ocean, it goes through a rapid intensification. This may happen when the storm crosses the Gulf Stream, or other eddies of warm water. This happened with Hurricane Irene this year, and Hurricane Opal over an eddy in 1995.
    In satellite pictures of the sea surface temp you can often see a cool path where the storm had passed. In the pictures for Floyd, you can see where Floyd weakened when it moved across the cool wake left by Dennis.
    The eye itself is warmer than the surrounding air temperature. This is part of what defines a hurricane as a tropical system ("warm core"). The record for warmest eye is shared by Super Typhoons Rita on Oct 23, 1978 and Vanessa on Oct 26, 1984, with a temp of 31C (88F) in the eye at 10,000 feet (measured by USAF "Typhoon Chaser" aircraft)... normally the temp would be 8C (47F) at that altitude! The air just outside the eyewall is sometimes coolest at the rear of the hurricane (relative to its movement), perhaps influenced by the cooler water upwelling behind it. See also USA Today's Hurricane Science

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