Whether you reside alongside a coastline and are concerned about your property and belongings or you're planning a vacation to the beach at the end of summer or early fall, the threat of a hurricane looming on the horizon is cause for concern for hundreds of thousands of people each year. To prepare yourself and your home for the potential problems associated with these dreaded tropical cyclones, check out the following hurricane season FAQ.
What is a hurricane?
Characterized by a large, swirling mass of snow-white clouds juxtaposed against a dark blue sea when they appear on weather radars and satellite images, the hurricanes that affect America typically form off the western coast of Africa and develop in both strength and intensity as they make their way across open water toward the United States coastline. The mass of clouds surround a tightly-wrapped "eye" which is situated in the center of the storm.
Hurricanes begin as low pressure systems and pass through three separate stages-tropical disturbance, tropical depression and tropical storm-before becoming a full-blown hurricane. In order to be considered a hurricane rather than a tropical depression or tropical storm, the tropical cyclone must contain one-minute sustained winds upwards of 74 miles per hour. Hurricanes are broken into categories that range from 1 to 5, with their designations based on where their wind speed ranks on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale.
What is hurricane season?
Although hurricanes can occur as early as May and as late as December in some parts of the world-such as the Gulf of Mexico or waters of the Caribbean-the vast majority of storms that affect U.S. coastlines develop during a timeframe that has been coined "hurricane season"-the months of June, July, August, September, October and November. According to the National Hurricane Center, hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends Nov. 30 for the Atlantic Ocean, and begins May 15 and ends Nov. 30 for the waters of the eastern North Pacific. The height of hurricane season in the Atlantic basin is mid-September, with activity beginning to increase significantly in the middle of August and continuing through the end of October.
How hurricanes form
A variety of factors come in play when forecasters attempt to determine whether a particular hurricane season will be an especially active one. Perhaps the biggest contributor to an active season is the temperature of the water. When saltwater reaches temperatures of 80 degrees or higher, wind gusts blowing over the waves cause water to rise into the stratosphere. As the warm moisture from the water reaches the stratosphere, it cools down significantly, aiding in the development of thunderstorm clouds. Rain falling from the clouds releases energy and heat, causing a drop in barometric pressure.
The point in the storm that experiences the biggest barometric pressure drop typically becomes the center of the storm and draws more wind and air into the system. As the wind increases, more thunderstorm clouds are created and forced outward. Blowing wind and rising water moisture combine to cause the Coriolis effect, which prompts a spinning motion that is characteristic of developed hurricanes. Once a hurricane is formed, it travels hundreds of miles over warm water until it makes landfall on the coastline in its path, weakens and dissipates, or stays safely out to sea without affecting people, property or the environment.