Video: Fuel for the Storm

NOAA | Ocean Today



We’ve all heard that hurricanes are one of the most powerful and destructive forces on Earth.  But did you ever wonder where they get their strength?

The formation of a hurricane is complicated, but basically, it depends on 3 factors:

First, you need warm water, at least 80 degrees. 
The second ingredient is moist air. 
And finally, there needs to be converging winds for a hurricane to form.

The actual process begins with a cluster of thunderstorms moving across the surface of the ocean. When the surface water is warm, the storm sucks up heat energy from the water, just like a straw sucks up a liquid. This creates moisture in the air.  If wind conditions are right, the storm becomes a hurricane.

This heat energy is the fuel for the storm. And the warmer the water, the more moisture is in the air. And that could mean bigger and stronger hurricanes. Satellite data shows the heat and energy transfer in action.  Notice how this hurricane leaves a trail of cooler water behind.

Scientists use sea surface temperature data from satellites to help forecast the intensity of storms. Hurricane Katrina, which was the third largest to make landfall in the U.S., crossed over Gulf waters that had temperatures between two and three degrees higher than normal.  This spawned sustained winds of over 140mph, extending 100 miles from the eye of the storm. And with greater intensity, there’s a higher chance for death and destruction.

This is why warming ocean temperatures matter; it’s like adding fuel to a fire and taking the world, literally, by storm.