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Earth Sense: Unexpected Hurricane Alex makes quick appearance, exit
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Even experienced meteorologists were surprised when Hurricane Alex formed in the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 14. Unusually warm waters helped produce the storm.

Like all hurricanes, Alex depended on high sea surface temperatures to produce the rising air and slow rotation that’s characteristic for these systems. But before you tweet about the evils of climatic change, keep in mind that it has happened before.

Three tropical storms occurred on January dates between 1951 and 2006. Farther back, in January 1851, a hurricane struck two small Caribbean islands east of Puerto Rico. It’s possible that the current El Niño (oceans warmer than normal) played a part in producing Alex, but there’s no certainty at this time.

Hurricanes are part of nature’s own cooling system. Excessive heat in tropical oceans causes massive evaporation. This water vapor, in turn, condenses as the heated air is rising.

Condensation is another warming process, supplying the fuel for the tremendous energy release in tropical storms, with wind speeds up to 74 mph. If a storm goes beyond this figure, it is upgraded to hurricane status.

These systems travel slowly toward colder regions. In that fashion they distribute heat energy from the tropics into the middle latitudes.

Georgia has a sheltered natural setting. Earthquakes are rare. No volcanoes exist. Tornadoes occur only infrequently. Likewise, hurricanes rarely hit us directly.

On state maps you can see that Georgia’s coastline has a concave, or bay-like, shape. This is beneficial in spreading the force of the waves as they reach the shore. 

On a small scale, a house located in a bay is much more protected than one sitting on a point or a bluff. This is because a wave about to hit land encounters more and more shoreline in the bay, the closer it gets.

It’s the opposite in North Carolina. Cape Fear, south of Wilmington, juts out into the Atlantic Ocean like a huge street corner. This has made the port city and Fort Fisher the target of numerous hurricanes in the past. 

Farther north, the Outer Banks with Hatteras and Ocracoke Island reach even deeper into the ocean. We’re likely to see those locations again in news reports about hurricane damage.

As far as Alex, he has come and gone. Meanwhile, the much more seasonal winter storm that crippled the Washington, D.C., area with a record amount of snow has made the news.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.