Commentary: Hurricane Physics, Revisited

Last year around this time, I wrote a series of articles explaining hurricane physics: Hurricane Physics: Part 1. One of the things motivating me to write the articles is the common statement that hurricanes are caused by the Coriolis Force. In my opinion, such a statement is just more pseudo science intended to blow smoke in your face and send you spinning down a whirlpool of scientific skullduggery.

The thing that ate at me was the fact that the Coriolis force is a pseudo force – a force that only appears to exist but does not actually exist. We are spinning on the earth like as on a merry-go-round. So if we are standing in the center of a hurricane (Low Pressure), air coming into the center appears to veer to the right. The same is true if you stand in the High Pressure, the leaving air appears to veer to the right, as is shown below. It does not really veer, it just appears to veer; and the force that makes it appear to veer is the Coriolis Force.

What really bugged me was that a hurricane is a collection of air that is in fact veering. It does not appear to veer, it does in fact veer. So how can a pseudo force, that does not actually exist, make air actually spin? The answer lies in two facts: 1. The earth is spinning, and 2. air travels from High Pressure to Low Pressure.

If you are standing at the Low, air appears to veer to the right of you because the earth is spinning. However, the Low acts as a type of suction pressure that pulls the air back into it. This starts the spinning process. Remember that this is happening in all directions, 360 degrees. The net affect is a vortex; and if the water is hot enough, you get a hurricane. Hot water means that a lot of moist air is being lifted into the upper atmosphere and the strong vacuum creates high speed winds.

I have been thinking about this problem since my first year in college. We would have discussions on campus about it, and the the same old thing was said, “The Coriolis Force creates hurricanes”. My response would be, “How can something that is not there, make something that is really there? The hurricane does not appear to spin, it does actually spin”. At that point, the professor would usually say, “Oh, that just shows that you really do not understand”. How nice, my grade just dropped a letter.

Hurricanes Marco and Laura are making me think about this subject all over again. I spent about 40 years trying to think through this subject, from college class rooms to the Offshore Technology Conference. I have posted it all here, just for you. Hope you like it.

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