Meteorologists and other scientists who study weather and storms have uncovered a lot of the details about hurricanes. They know much more about how they form than they did a few years ago. But when someone asks, “How do hurricanes form?” the answer will be anything but complete.
Scientists are still learning about this fascinating and important subject, applying new knowledge every day. Apparently, there are at least six basic ingredients in the hurricane “recipe.” Yet, some storms can and do form, then cause significant damage, without all of these six pieces.
One of the most crucial pieces of the hurricane puzzle is the temperature of water. Generally, a hurricane won’t form unless the water temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. In addition, the water must have a certain depth (about 150 feet). While that seems deep, in the ocean 150 feet is rather shallow. That’s why the shallower regions of the ocean are perfect places for these powerful storms to form.
Hurricanes draw moisture upward from this warm, shallow water as the atmosphere in the area is rather unstable. Scientists and those who live near the ocean know that thunderstorms and rise of moisture into the upper atmosphere are key ingredients in hurricane formation.
The moisture and air rise quickly and are very warm at the beginning. Some of the power of hurricanes comes from the cooling of the clouds. The release of heat gives the storm its great power. Of course, the moisture content of the clouds is also a key to the formation.
Another factor that helps sustain a hurricane is wind. However, the movement of this wind cannot be too fast or it will destroy the motion of warm, moist air into the upper atmosphere (convection). This is a key piece of the puzzle that allows the storm to continue rotating.
Finally, hurricanes do not form just anywhere on the planet. Most of these unique storms form within a few degrees of the equator. This accounts for the movement around the storm’s eye, which moves at a speed between 74 miles per hour and 200 miles per hour. If the winds in a storm are less than 74 mph, it is a tropical storm, not a hurricane, according to scientists.
Tip: These storms are called hurricanes in the areas of the world around the Philippines and in the Pacific region near China and Japan.
The time of year helps determine where a hurricane will form. There are hurricane “seasons.” Generally, if there is a hurricane in the Atlantic in July or August, for example, there probably won’t be hurricane activity in the Indian Ocean. Areas active with hurricanes include the north Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Northwest near the United States and the Pacific near Australia.
As we stated in the beginning, scientists are still learning about hurricanes and other tropical storms. Electronic equipment and satellites have greatly expanded knowledge of these amazing and destructive storms. Some scientists even fly into a hurricane or other storm to gather information directly, all in the quest to better understand the earth’s weather.