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Hurricanes

In this episode of Big If True, we’re talking about big storms—hurricanes! We’re talking to Matthew Cappucci, a meteorologist with the Capital Weather Gang from the Washington Post. He’ll tell us what a hurricane is, what kind of damage they can cause, and why they’re so dangerous.

Matthew Cappucci

Our guest for this episode

Matthew Cappucci is a meteorologist at The Washington Post. He delivers forecasts on WAMU and frequent television updates during hurricane season. He graduated from Harvard in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric sciences. He is an avid traveler, teacher and storm chaser. 

Transcript

ABBY: Maggie, what’s your least favorite memory from kindergarten?

MAGGIE: So we were walking home from school, and we got caught in a huge thunderstorm, and it was lightning and thundering and then hailing. I was screaming and the umbrellas were turning themselves inside out and I was pretty sure we were going to die.

ABBY: Yes, in fact you said that extremely loudly many times, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die!” As I recall, you were terrified of thunderstorms for quite a while after that.

MAGGIE: Yes. They’re still not my favorite.

ABBY: Then you’re going to have to be brave for today’s episode of

MAGGIE and ABBY: BIG IF TRUE,

MAGGIE: where we explore the truth about big things.

MAGGIE: Wait, why?

ABBY: Because today we’re talking about a big storm. I’m Abby,

MAGGIE: and I’m Maggie,

ABBY: and today we’re talking about hurricanes!

MAGGIE: So here’s our question to test your knowledge about hurricanes.

ABBY: Maybe you’ve heard hurricanes called “Category 1,” “Category 2,” all the way up to “Category 5.” What are these categories measuring?

MAGGIE:

A: Rainfall

B: Size of the storm in miles

C: Wind speed

D: The length of time a storm stays strong

ABBY: Listen for the answer later in the show! Now, to bring us some answers about these huge storms, today we’re talking to a meteorologist who knows a lot about them.

CAPPUCCI: My name is Matthew Cappucci. I’m a meteorologist for The Washington Post Capital Weather Gang.

MAGGIE: What is a hurricane?

CAPPUCCI: A hurricane is a big rotating mass of thunderstorms over the open ocean. They get all their energy from warm ocean waters below. It’s that heat that really drives the ferocity of a storm and allows it to develop into a big spitting massive rain and thunderstorms and wind. So essentially, it’s this big batch of clouds with sometimes an eye in the middle, a calm center, and very strong wind results.

Hurricane Matthew hitting the country of Haiti, from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center photos.
Hurricane Matthew Hits Haiti, photo by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

CAPPUCCI: Where we live in the northern United States, we typically see storms that get their energy from the Jetstream. A river of very strong winds in the upper atmosphere. Now in those areas, the waters are usually a little bit colder. And as a result, we can’t sustain a hurricane, we can sustain midlatitude storms, that get their energy from contrasts, changes in surface temperature, they feed off those boundaries. And that’s what gets them going.

ABBY: Hold on: let’s define midlatitude really quick.

CAPPUCCI: Midlatitude is outside the tropics. So in other words in the tropics, you’re near the equator within 23 and a half degrees north latitude, or 23 and a half degrees south latitude. And that’s where it’s the warmest, where the sunlight is the most direct ,and why it’s always nice weather in Florida, for example. It’s nice and warm. There’s never any snow; all the people go south to enjoy the nice warm weather in the wintertime. And it’s because it’s in the tropical zone. And that’s why the waters are warm enough to support hurricanes.

MAGGIE: What’s the biggest hurricane on record?

CAPPUCCI: So, the biggest or the strongest? I think the biggest is typhoon tip. We call hurricanes in the western Pacific typhoons. And this thing was more than 1000 miles wide.

ABBY: Just for reference, 1000 miles is the distance from where you were born, Maggie, in Boston, to where I was born, Greenville, SC. It took us about 16 hours to drive that distance when you were very little.

CAPPUCCI: So this thing was giant; of course, it was over the open ocean. So at the time, it wasn’t affecting people, still impacted land eventually. But it’s very rare to see a storm that big. Hurricane Sandy was very big at the same time, too. That was in October of 2012. But the secret with Sandy — it wasn’t just a hurricane, it was the same time a midlatitude storm. So it’s kind of transitioning into something that we would see outside the tropics, which allowed it to weaken a bit, but grow and expand.

Footage from Hurricane Sandy; content warning: there are some scary images!

CAPPUCCI: Now the strength of a hurricane depends almost exclusively on how warm the waters are, and how favorable the winds in the upper atmosphere are. You have to have very strong warm waters, because those are the warm, juicy things, you know, the moisture that feeds this hurricane, and you have to have weak winds in the upper atmosphere. If the winds upstairs are too strong, it’s like playing a game of tug of war and you pull the hurricane apart. You don’t want that if you want a strong storm. Now we have seen storms in the Atlantic with winds of 195 miles per hour before; Hurricane Wilma was exceptionally strong. Alan was exceptionally strong, Dorian last year was very strong as well and stayed strong for an extended period of time. You can occasionally get stronger storms in the Pacific with winds near 200 miles per hour. But again, anything like that is extremely rare, but a force to behold.

MAGGIE: What makes hurricanes so dangerous?

CAPPUCCI: Hurricanes have a number of different hazards they present. Of course, their strong winds, so the closer you get to the middle of the hurricane, the stronger the wind gets, and the eyewall that ring a very strong winds around the calm eye, can produce exceptional wind gusts well over 100 miles per hour in stronger storms. And that can very easily result in significant wind damage, sometimes rivaling what you would see with a tornado. Now all that wind doesn’t just move things around on land, it also moves the ocean. So as the hurricane is approaching the shore, where the onshore winds are blowing, it can pile water up against the coast. Now it’s very easy to hide from wind. But it’s not very easy to hide from water. So you have to kind of run from the water. Because we have something called a storm surge all this water blown by the wind that moves ashore and can cause serious damage, destruction or even death where it hits and then oftentimes can be more than 10, 15, almost 20 feet high.

Destroyed houses, debris, water standing
Hurricane Andrew – Dadeland Mobile Home Park after passage of Andrew. Photo by NOAA.

CAPPUCCI: In addition, inland, we have a lot of rainfall that forms from hurricanes because they’re so waterlogged. Once they move away from the ocean, they don’t keep pulling in water, so they just get rid of all their water. And they just dump a ton of rain. And it’s very easy to see one, two, maybe even three feet of rainfall from hurricanes; some places can see almost a year’s worth of rainfall out of one storm over the course of two or three days. So inland flooding is a big problem too. And then lastly, tornadoes. When hurricanes move inland, there’s enough spin within the hurricane, you can actually have smaller tornadoes touched down. So you could be hit by a tornado inside a hurricane, making it all the more dangerous.

ABBY: Now, hurricanes are especially scary because it’s not just one per year—it can be a lot per year! And this year seemed like a pretty bad year for hurricanes.

MAGGIE: How many hurricanes were there in 2020?

CAPPUCCI: There were I believe, 13, hurricanes, six major hurricanes, we have only ever seen one year on record with more hurricanes. And that was 2005, during which 15, hurricanes formed an average year, you might only see five or six hurricanes, a dozen named storms in general, this year, we got 30 named storms, more than we’ve ever seen before. And the rate with which they formed how quickly one after another after another formed and developed was unbelievable. There were also several times when we see when we saw two storms that hit the same area back to back: in Louisiana, for example. We had Lake Charles that was hit by Hurricane Laura, a category four, in late August on the 27th of August, and then barely five, six weeks later, we had another serious storm, hurricane Delta, hit as a category two, only about 15 miles away. And the same thing happened in Puerto Cabesas, Nicaragua, earlier this year too, where in the course of two weeks two category fours slammed that area and dropped more than a yard –three feet– of rainfall.

ABBY: Just for reference again, 3 feet is approximately how tall your brother is, Maggie. So imagine a four-year-old’s worth of rain in one storm.

MAGGIE: That’s a lot of rain.

ABBY: Also, we know that there are a lot of storms out there that dumped a lot of rain but weren’t quite hurricanes.

MAGGIE: What do we call storms that look like they might become hurricanes but aren’t yet?

CAPPUCCI: Great question. Tropical storm. So tropical storms have winds between 39 and 73 miles per hour. Once the maximum winds in the middle of the storm hits 74, that’s when we call it a hurricane. Now oftentimes those winds in the middle aren’t always sustained, meaning they don’t go nonstop, they are gusts, the wind might be a little weaker for a second, then you’ll have a big gust of wind, and the gusts are actually what do most of the damage. And so that’s part of the reason why when we communicate hurricanes, even though we say maximum sustained winds, we’re kind of talking more about those higher end gusts that do most of the damage. Now below a tropical storm, when something isn’t sure if it wants to become a storm yet, if it’s kind of on the fringe, we call it a tropical depression, which means, Hey, there’s this area we need to watch, it is becoming a little bit stronger, but we’re not sure yet if it’s going to go; it’s just something we have to keep an eye on. So we have three different levels. But a hurricane is the most significant.

MAGGIE: Hey, Matthew just answered our quiz question! Wind speed is the way we categorize storms; a Category 3 storm has wind speeds of over 110 miles per hour. Category 3, 4, and 5 hurricanes are considered major hurricanes. Fun fact: the scale used to categorize hurricane wind speeds is called the Saffir-Simpson scale.

ABBY: What do you think it feels like to be in a hurricane, Maggie?

MAGGIE: Scary?

CAPPUCCI: It feels like you’re sticking your head out the window when you’re driving down the highway, [sound of car window rolling down and then wind] is the best way I could put it. And you should never take your seatbelt off when you’re driving in a car. But if you stick your hand out the window, then you’ll feel, wow, that’s really flapping around, it’s blowing around, it’s tough to put your hand out there. That’s exactly what a hurricane feels like. And that’s a minimal hurricane. [sound of airplane taking off] Now imagine you were to do the same thing on an airplane as it was taking off, going 140, 150 miles per hour, your face would be all smushed back, your teeth would be like this, you’d look kind of funny. And that’s exactly what would happen in a hurricane. Now think about what it does to a person. Imagine what would happen to all the buildings there too. They start falling down, they start blowing around. So hurricane force winds are not something you want to be outside in. I’ve been in a number of hurricanes and truth be told the door to my rental car was actually ripped off once by the wind in a hurricane.

MAGGIE: Yikes! I do not want to go out into a hurricane! Why were there so many storms this year?

CAPPUCCI: That is a really good question. And there are four or five different reasons why we had so many. This year, we had something called La Nina. La Nina means the waters in the eastern Pacific on the other side of Central America, were a lot colder.

CAPPUCCI: And as a result, you had some sinking motion there which enhanced rising motion over the Atlantic. To get a strong storm like a hurricane to form you want a lot of air moving upwards because the more air that goes up, the more stormy it can become, the more rain that falls, that sort of thing. So the fact there is sinking somewhere else helps boost rising over the Atlantic, simultaneously winds in the upper atmosphere over the Atlantic, were a little bit weak, meaning that there was less that tug of war, the pulling apart of hurricanes. And it was easier for them to develop without being what we call sheared apart, yanked and disturbed and things like that. In addition, we had very warm ocean temperatures, courtesy, partially of climate change, the warmer the ocean is, the more energy it contains. And it’s easier to kind of push any one of these storms, any fledgling storms into the significant category where they will develop, they will become hurricanes, they will become powerful. So there’s just that much more fuel to work with this year.

CAPPUCCI: We also had steering currents that favored pushing the storms towards the United States. And lastly, we had a couple things called (and it’s gonna sound kind of scary, but they’re they’re they’re not that bad)–they’re called convectively coupled Kelvin waves basically, big areas of rising air over the ocean that would just move through and help boost those hurricanes even more. And we got three or four of those so far this season. And those are what helped to really enhance the number of storms that formed.

MAGGIE: What’s going to happen next year with hurricanes?

CAPPUCCI: I think next year right now is showing signs of being busy. We don’t know exactly how busy we’ll be. But we do know there’s an increased risk of some pretty good storminess, we’ll have to watch that very closely. in the longer term, thanks to climate change. We know storms are becoming stronger, they’re becoming wetter and they’re becoming windier. Because as the airs, that air temperature increases, the air can hold 7% more water for every degree Celsius, we warm up or about 4% more water for every degree Fahrenheit. So to think that we’ve warmed maybe a degree, two degrees, maybe three degrees, thanks to climate change over the past 60-70 years, all of a sudden, the air can hold a lot more water and you’re getting more storms that produce a lot of rain. We’ve also seen a number of storms rapidly intensifies that gets really strong really fast. We also know that the highest end storms are becoming even stronger. Now there’s a chance we see slightly fewer storms or roughly the same number of storms in the future. So we’re not expecting more storms, but we know that those that are will be significantly more intense going forward.

MAGGIE: Matthew, thank you so much for telling us about hurricanes! One last question: if a kid like me is interested in meteorology, or weather, how can we get into it more?

CAPPUCCI: doing exactly what you’re doing asking questions to people who are involved in the field, reading up as much as you can. I’d say especially if you like math and science, math and science are two of my favorite things. If you like those two subjects, you are going to be a perfect meteorologist.

ABBY: And that’s it for today’s show! We’d love to hear from you about your meteorological observations—you can tell us on Instagram: we’re @bigiftruepodcast there, or you can contact us on our website, bigiftrue.abbymullen.org. We’ve also got some resources there for you to check out more about hurricanes and the weather. So this week, go out and do some observations and tell us what you find!

MAGGIE: And come back in two weeks for another episode of

ABBY and MAGGIE: BIG IF TRUE.

ABBY: Big If True is produced and hosted by me, Abby, and Maggie. Thanks to Matthew Cappucci of the Capital Weather Gang for being our special guest today. If you liked today’s show, why not share it with a friend, a family member, or a teacher in your life?

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