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What is a Hurricane?

September 14, 2018

With mandatory evacuations and schools closings this week, you cannot go far without someone bringing up the H-word…

Hurricanes form over tropical waters when the ocean temperatures are warm (June 1 – November 30) and are the most active when there is a greater difference between the surface water and air temperatures (September).

From space, you can see Hurricane Florence’s calm in her eye surrounded by the rotation of powerful winds and heavy rain of the eye wall. Source: NASA

As the warm, moist air rises it condenses into rain clouds and cooler air fills the space below, creating an area of low pressure. The cool air is then quickly heated, rises, and the cycle repeats itself. If the conditions are right and the wind speed and direction are steady as it goes up in the sky, this area of low pressure gains energy and a powerful rotating storm forms. We can usually track this on the weather channel when we see a tropical disturbance turn into a tropical depression, then a tropical storm, before ultimately reaching hurricane status. Hurricanes get their energy from warm waters so once they hit cooler waters and/or make landfall, they start to break up.

To keep them all straight, the World Meteorological Organization has a list of alphabetical names that they cycle through every 6 years. Is your name on the list? If a hurricane causes enough damage, its name is removed from the rotation and replaced with another name starting with the same letter.

Hurricanes are no joke and come with a lot of rain, high winds, tidal flooding, and threats of tornadoes. Hampton Roads residents must know your zone in case there are evacuation orders and should prepare for hurricane season every year. With ocean temperatures rising, we should do our part to make little changes in our lives to lessen our carbon footprint. If not, we can expect to see more extreme weather as our global climate changes.

For the safety of our animals, staff, volunteers, and guests, our museum is closed today. But that does not mean the science learning has to stop! Here is an activity to do with your family at home which helps visualize how hot air rises.

What you will need:

  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • String
  • Lamp with an incandescent light bulb


  1. On a piece of paper, draw a spiral with the outer end of the spiral touching one of the outer lines to make a circle. Start with any size and you can repeat this experiment with different sizes.
  2. Cut out the circle and then cut along the spiral lines so the paper is still in one piece.
  3. Poke a hole in the center of the spiral and attach a piece of string.
  4. Hold your spiral by the string so the spiral opens up and hold it above the lamp. What starts to happen as the light bulb heats up?

The Science:

  • As the light bulb heats up, the spiral starts to spin. This gives a visual of the hot air rising and simulates the warm air rising off of the ocean, just like in a hurricane.

Stay safe indoors this Hurricane Florence Friday!

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