Home Science Environment Researchers Find Even Small Disturbances Can Trigger Catastrophic Storms

Researchers Find Even Small Disturbances Can Trigger Catastrophic Storms

You’ve probably seen satellite images that show a hurricane developing — thick white clouds clumping together, arms spinning around a central eye as it heads for the coast. After decades of research, meteorologists still have questions about how hurricanes develop. Now, Florida State University researchers have found that even the smallest changes in atmospheric conditions could trigger a hurricane, information that will help scientists understand the processes that lead to these devastating storms.

Jacob Carstens, a doctoral student in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science, said:

The research by Carstens and Assistant Professor Allison Wing has been published in the Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems. Current theories on the formation of hurricanes agree that some sort of disturbance must exist to start the process that leads to a hurricane. Carstens used numerical models that started with simple conditions to better understand exactly how those disturbances arise. He said:

Despite the random start to the simulation, the clouds didn’t stay randomly arranged. They formed into clusters as the water vapor, thermal radiation, and other factors interacted. As the clusters circulated through the simulated atmosphere, the researchers tracked when they formed hurricanes.

They repeated the model at simulated latitudes between 0.1 degrees and 20 degrees north, representative of areas such as parts of western Africa, northern South America, and the Caribbean. That range includes the latitudes where tropical cyclones typically form, along with latitudes very close to the equator where their formation is rare and less studied.

An image of the simulated wind field around a modeled hurricane. (Courtesy of Jacob Carstens)
An image of the simulated wind field around a modeled hurricane. (Image: Courtesy of Jacob Carstens)

The simulations started with mostly uniform conditions spread across the imaginary box where the model played out. Then, researchers added a tiny amount of random temperature fluctuations to kickstart the model and observed how the simulated clouds evolved.

The scientists found that every simulation in latitudes between 10 and 20 degrees produced a major hurricane, even from the stable conditions under which they began the simulation. These came a few days after a vortex first emerged well above the surface and affected its surrounding environment.

Jacob Carstens, a doctoral student in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science.
Jacob Carstens, a doctoral student in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science. (Image: (Image: Courtesy of Jacob Carstens)

They also showed the possibility of cloud interaction contributing to the development of a tropical cyclone very close to the equator, which rarely occurs in nature but has still been observed as close as 1.4 degrees north away. Hurricanes are dangerous weather events. Forecasting can help prevent deaths, but a big storm can still cause billions of dollars in damage.

Allison Wing, an assistant professor in FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science.
Allison Wing, an assistant professor in FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science. m(Image: (Image: Courtesy of Jacob Carstens)

A better theoretical understanding of their formation will help meteorologists predict and prepare for these storms, both in short-term forecasts and long-term climate projections, and communicate their understanding to the public. Carstens said:

Provided by: Florida State University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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