Hurricanes are severe tropical storms that form over the north Atlantic or north-east Pacific oceans. They are also known as severe tropical cyclones and in other parts of the world similar storms are referred to as this or typhoons.
To be classed as a hurricane the wind speed must be at least 74 miles per hour but the fiercest category 5 hurricanes can have winds of more than twice this. With this power behind them hurricanes are often devastating.
Hurricanes are formed over areas of warm ocean water. The energy comes from warm air, which rises and begins to move counterclockwise. The storm becomes ever stronger as it moves over the ocean, collecting more energy and moisture. The moisture produced from evaporation produces the associated clouds, and these in turn lead to torrential rain, thunder and lightning.
The intense swirling winds, heavy rainfall and associated flooding can be immensely damaging. Predicting the path of a hurricane is clearly a vital task for meteorologists. It means that people can evacuate and/or protect their property. Knowing that a hurricane is coming saves lives and homes.
However because of the unpredictability of weather systems it is not possible to predict the paths of hurricanes far in advance. What we do know is where they form and places likely to be hit. Once a hurricane is formed and on the move meteorologists can predict with far more accuracy the path it will take.
Normally, by analysing data collected as the hurricane moves, meteorologists can predict the path of a hurricane with sometimes startling accuracy a few days before it hits. This allows people to evacuate and take precautions in time.
Unfortunately unexpected factors sometimes come into play. When this happens the results can be worse and lives lost. An example is Hurricane Charley in 2004, whose path and intensity were different to that forecast. Several people died and the damage was severe. Forecasting of hurricanes is becoming more and more accurate with advances in meteorology, but it is yet to be 100% accurate every time.
Meteorologists also use a combination of techniques to predict hurricanes well in advance including satellite imaging, monitoring of factors that create hurricanes such as sea surface temperature and atmospheric conditions and crucially computer modelling.
Between them these provide an idea of what will happen during the coming hurricane season. They can even be used to estimate the number and severity of hurricanes decades into the future. In addition past data has been used to figure out natural cycles. Unfortunately we are now approaching a cycle of exceptional hurricane activity, which is likely to continue for decades.
The work of meteorologists is more important than ever with high hurricane activity expected. Every year their forecasts get more accurate. Devastating as hurricanes can be,at least we now have more chance of preparing for them.