Hurricane Physics: Part 1

We are now entering the part of hurricane season when the Gulf Coast sees the most hurricane activity.  The time period is typically late summer and early autumn, and this is important to the energy industry.  For years I have been going to the Offshore Technology Conference, and every year I see private weather forecasting companies there.


I always stop by their booths and talk hurricane physics.  My first question is usually, we already have government organizations like the National Weather Service, why do we need you?  They always tell me that government information is not enough.  Energy companies want to be totally on top of the weather.  Weather has a big impact on the bottom line.  I recently attended a supply chain conference and I learned that if a company is doing construction on a hard dollar bid, and they did not factor weather risks into that bid, then they are out of luck – the extra cost for slow down is on them.  Private weather services provide accurate and customized weather information to energy companies.

What nags at me, however, is that discussions surrounding hurricanes have always been clouded with Newspeak and fuzzy double-talk – strange for such an important subject.  I keep hearing that the reason why hurricanes develop such tight circles is because of the Coriolis force.  My response is that the Coriolis force is a pseudo force ( pseudo is from the Greek and means “fake”), so how can something that is not really there produce something like a hurricane, which most definitely is there?

This has been on  my mind ever since I studied pseudo forces in college.  Even then it seems like the professor was speaking some kind of psycho-babble.  My discussions with the folks at the weather services turned out even worst – Coriolis force, blah blah.  For about 30 years I have been thinking about this problem and I think I finally have a viable answer to what makes hurricanes.  Over the next few weeks, I will be rolling out my findings and I encourage any insightful comments that others can make to the discussion.

At this point, I would just like to highlight that the first step in hurricane development is air traveling from high to low pressure.  Pressure is force per area; thus, for the same cross-sectional area of flow, high pressure has more force.   Air, and most fluids, naturally move from the higher force to the lower force.  This concept is captured in something we call the Bernoulli equation.  Engineers rely heavily on the Bernoulli equation; and in most of our applications, fluid flow comes down to simply pressure differential.  Other factors are important too, but, for the most part, its pressure differential.  We will pick up more on that next time.



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