BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


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Tropical cyclone


"Tropical" refers to the geographical origin of these systems, which form almost exclusively over tropical seas. "Cyclone" refers to their winds moving in a circle, whirling round their central clear eye, with their winds blowing counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. The opposite direction of circulation is due to the Coriolis effect. Tropical cyclones typically form over large bodies of relatively warm water. They derive their energy through the evaporation of water from the ocean surface, which ultimately recondenses into clouds and rain when moist air rises and cools to saturation. This energy source differs from that of mid-latitude cyclonic storms, such as nor'easters and European windstorms, which are fueled primarily by horizontal temperature contrasts. Tropical cyclones are typically between 100 and 2,000 km (62 and 1,243 mi) in diameter.

The previously mentioned processes result in a wind field that is nearly axisymmetric: Wind speeds are low at the center, increase rapidly moving outwards to the radius of maximum winds, and then decay more gradually with radius to large radii. However, the wind field often exhibits additional spatial and temporal variability due to the effects of localized processes, such as thunderstorm activity and horizontal flow instabilities. In the vertical direction, winds are strongest near the surface and decay with height within the troposphere.

The eyewall may vary over time in the form of eyewall replacement cycles, particularly in intense tropical cyclones. Outer rainbands can organize into an outer ring of thunderstorms that slowly moves inward, which is believed to rob the primary eyewall of moisture and angular momentum. When the primary eyewall weakens, the tropical cyclone weakens temporarily. The outer eyewall eventually replaces the primary one at the end of the cycle, at which time the storm may return to its original intensity.

The three-dimensional wind field in a tropical cyclone can be separated into two components: a "primary circulation" and a "secondary circulation". The primary circulation is the rotational part of the flow; it is purely circular. The secondary circulation is the overturning (in-up-out-down) part of the flow; it is in the radial and vertical directions. The primary circulation is larger in magnitude, dominating the surface wind field, and is responsible for the majority of the damage a storm causes, while the secondary circulation is slower but governs the energetics of the storm.

The passage of a tropical cyclone over the ocean causes the upper layers of the ocean to cool substantially, which can influence subsequent cyclone development. This cooling is primarily caused by wind-driven mixing of cold water from deeper in the ocean with the warm surface waters. This effect results in a negative feedback process that can inhibit further development or lead to weakening. Additional cooling may come in the form of cold water from falling raindrops (this is because the atmosphere is cooler at higher altitudes). Cloud cover may also play a role in cooling the ocean, by shielding the ocean surface from direct sunlight before and slightly after the storm passage. All these effects can combine to produce a dramatic drop in sea surface temperature over a large area in just a few days. Coversely, the mixing of the sea can result in heat being inserted in deeper waters, with potential effects on global climate.

Worldwide, tropical cyclone activity peaks in late summer, when the difference between temperatures aloft and sea surface temperatures is the greatest. However, each particular basin has its own seasonal patterns. On a worldwide scale, May is the least active month, while September is the most active month. November is the only month in which all the tropical cyclone basins are active.

Environmental steering is the dominant term. Conceptually, it represents the movement of the storm due to prevailing winds and other wider environmental conditions, similar to "leaves carried along by a stream". Physically, the winds, or flow field, in the vicinity of a tropical cyclone may be treated as having two parts: the flow associated with the storm itself, and the large-scale background flow of the environment in which the storm takes place. In this way, tropical cyclone motion may be represented to first-order simply as advection of the storm by the local environmental flow. This environmental flow is termed the "steering flow".

Physically, the cyclonic circulation of the storm advects environmental air poleward east of center and equatorial west of center. Because air must conserve its angular momentum, this flow configuration induces a cyclonic gyre equatorward and westward of the storm center and an anticyclonic gyre poleward and eastward of the storm center. The combined flow of these gyres acts to advect the storm slowly poleward and westward. This effect occurs even if there is zero environmental flow.

Hurricane preparedness encompasses the actions and planning taken before a tropical cyclone strikes to mitigate damage and injury from the storm. Knowledge of tropical cyclone impacts on an area help plan for future possibilities. Preparedness may involve preparations made by individuals as well as centralized efforts by governments or other organizations. Tracking storms during the tropical cyclone season helps individuals know current threats. Regional Specialized Meteorological Centers and Tropical Cyclone Warning Centers provide current information and forecasts to help individuals make the best decision possible.

Intense tropical cyclones pose a particular observation challenge, as they are a dangerous oceanic phenomenon, and weather stations, being relatively sparse, are rarely available on the site of the storm itself. In general, surface observations are available only if the storm is passing over an island or a coastal area, or if there is a nearby ship. Real-time measurements are usually taken in the periphery of the cyclone, where conditions are less catastrophic and its true strength cannot be evaluated. For this reason, there are teams of meteorologists that move into the path of tropical cyclones to help evaluate their strength at the point of landfall.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782