A Hurricane Recipe

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

By Yun Lu, Climate and Society 2014

My summer internship is about documenting global hurricane simulations using a high-resolution climate model. The model is blah blah blah…I bet I’m boring you. Well, what about talking about something more interesting (or at least tasty)?. Let’s say, pasta! Sounds good, right? But wait, how could hurricanes be related to pasta?

Simple ingredients – Warm Air and Moisture

You need just two ingredients to make good fresh pasta: flour and water. And then you must mix them in the right proportion. Similarly, the secret of making a hurricane is a mixture of warm air and moisture.

Over the ocean near the equator, the warm and moist air rises upward, leading to a lack of air near the surface. This causes ‘new’ air from surrounding areas to take its place and subsequently start rising. When the warmed, moist air continues swirling from the surface and reaches the upper sky, it cools off and the moisture in the air forms clouds.

This is like the process of making homemade pasta. You stir the flour and the water, finally making them into smooth dough.  Similarly, it is the heat and water vapor from the warm ocean surface that feed the spinning wind, rain and clouds that make a hurricane, well, a hurricane.

Shapes? So Many Choices!

Observed global hurricane tracks for the period 1986-2005. Source: NOAA, National Climate Data Center

Observed global hurricane tracks for the period 1986-2005. Source: NOAA, National Climate Data Center

In a grocery store, there are numerous shapes and types of pasta. Similarly, there are a number of things that make each hurricane unique. One hurricane can have a different track depending on the region it forms, different windspeeds depending on the state of the atmosphere or even different names in different ocean basins. For example, storms formed in the North Atlantic Ocean are called hurricanes and those occurring in the Western North Pacific Ocean are called typhoons. In these two basins, hurricanes or typhoons typically have curly tracks from the equator toward the northwest latitude. They look like long elbow pasta. But on the Eastern North Pacific Ocean, storms usually have a shape of spaghetti: long, thin and straight. Sometimes, storms look like bow tie-shaped pasta. It is a special occasion when two storms are getting so close that they start orbiting each other.

The Trickiest Part: Heat!

The culinary term “al dente” is used to describe pasta that is cooked to be firm to the bite. Which level of heat you choose to use will directly influence how firm your pasta gets. In the same way, the change of global atmosphere and sea surface temperature will change hurricanes’ tracks and intensity. Using high-resolution climate models, we are able to simulate possible future climate scenarios. By analyzing the model hurricanes using statistic methods, we are trying to predict the future hurricane change under the global warming.

We live, eat pasta, plant crops and vegetables and build houses and schools. We study weather and climate, because we want to choose the best place to build, the best season to plant and the best the way to live. Understanding hurricanes is one important part of that process.

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