Written By: Bill Herren
Scientists that study the atmosphere and weather patterns are called meteorologists. Meteorology is an ancient science dating back to 340 B.C. when Greek philosopher, Aristotle, studied the atmosphere and wrote a book on weather based on his ideas of logic and reason, not observation. Today’s meteorologists spend their time observing atmospheric data, using computer models, radar, aircraft and satellites to forecast the weather-down to the minute in some instances. Other meteorologists research and work closely with mathematicians, oceanographers, hydrologists and others involved in environmental science. Some meteorologists study hurricanes, winter storms, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes exclusively. Each impacts not only our environment, but also human life and livelihood, including ocean animals and the food we grow and eat. As you can see, meteorology is much more than standing in front of a weather map on the news, letting us know whether we will get rain or sunshine during the day.
Tropical storms that build over warm ocean water sometimes become hurricanes. Hurricanes are called typhoons when located west of the International Date Line, but they are the same thing-dangerous storms that have great potential to cause extensive, even catastrophic, damage to homes and death should they come ashore. Hurricanes contain winds more than 74 miles per hour and have a tendency for excessive rainfall, tornadoes and storm surges due to the wind and rises in sea level. They cannot form unless the ocean water is at least 79 degrees Fahrenheit, so most form in late summer to early fall. Hurricanes are formed around an “eye” or a calm center with low atmospheric pressure, and spiral outward with winds closing in on 200 miles per hour. Hurricanes strength is classified by using the Saffir-Simpson scale, which rates them up to a category 5. Most hurricanes rate a three or below, but the damage to property can cost billions. Hurricane Katrina, rated a category 5 just before landfall in August 2005, killed 1,833 people and caused $108 billion in damage.
Blizzards, lake-effect snow, ice storms and nor’easters are four types of winter storms. All are very dangerous and can cause property damage and death. Blizzards have temperatures usually below 20 degrees with winds exceeding 35 miles per hour and usually lots of blowing and drifting snow. Lake effect snows occur when cold air is forced upward over warm water. These snows can quickly turn into blizzards given the right conditions. Ice storms are really freezing rain that accumulates more than one-quarter of an inch on the ground. Ice storms are very dangerous to venture out in, as trees and power lines easily snap under the weight of ice, and roads become hazardous. Nor’easters are extremely dangerous. Think of nor’easters as winter hurricanes in that winds can be just as intense. All winter storms form with low-pressure centers, jet stream position, atmospheric moisture and warm and cold fronts. People die from exposure to cold, called hypothermia; and from a lack of being prepared for the bad weather.
Tornadoes can be stunning to watch from afar, but it is not advised. These frightening storms are actually funnels of air spinning up to 250 miles per hour, cutting a path one mile wide, traveling up to 50 miles before leaving the ground. Most tornadoes have short life spans and never stay on the ground for long. Some tornadoes clear everything in their path. Others destroy homes, leaving homes next to them unscathed. They are truly one of nature’s most unpredictable storms as we have yet to understand what happens inside a tornado funnel.
Tornadoes occur in the United States more than any other country in the world. They form when wind speeds hit each other and spiral horizontally before being tipped upward by rising air masses. They are classified by the Enhanced-Fujita scale, rating them from zero (weakest) to five (most violent). Violent tornadoes are rare, causing most tornado damage and deaths. The Joplin, Missouri, tornado, occurring in May of 2011, killed 117 people and caused $3 billion in damage.
When rainfall or water from oceans, rivers, lakes and streams rises to cover landscapes, this is a flood. Floods can happen slowly or in a “flash” causing water to cover roadways and fill basements. Flooding causes property damage and death. It can cause water supplies to become contaminated, spread disease if the flooding is long-term, and destroy crops and food supplies. Six of the top nine deadliest floods ever were located in China. The worst killed up to 3.7 million people in 1931.
Thunderstorms and Lightning
Thunderstorms are formed when unstable air and moisture combine. There are three basic types of thunderstorms: orographic, air mass and frontal storms. Orographic storm air is forced up by landforms like mountains. Air mass thunderstorms are formed by unstable air masses and convections, which is a word that is used to describe the way air circulates. Frontal thunderstorms occur along weather fronts. The thunderstorms that produce deadly tornadoes are called supercells. These are the storms that storm chasers look for when attempting to locate tornadoes. When warm air rises quickly due to a cold front, cumulous clouds form condensation, which releases heat and grows a simple thunderstorm into a supercell. These storms produce deadly lightning and often tornadoes, driving wind and rain. The rule for safety is: if you hear thunder, get inside. The storm isn’t far behind-and lightning can strike a person from up to 10 miles away. Lightning is formed from electrical charges in cloud turbulence. Lightning can occur from cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-ground. Over 70 people die from lightning strikes every year and many hundreds more are injured.
Earthquakes are caused when energy is released underground causing seismic waves. They can happen anywhere, but usually stay around areas called fault planes. Earthquakes happening along fault planes are usually due to shifts in those planes causing them to hit, lower or rise against each other. Earthquakes cause many deaths and a lot of damage every year, especially in areas of the world where buildings are not constructed well enough to withstand earthquakes. Earthquakes happening below the surface of the ocean can cause huge waves of water to form, some of which make landfall. Those are called tsunamis.
Most clouds form in the troposphere or the lowest part of the Earth’s atmosphere. Clouds have various names like cirrus, cumulus, and stratus. Each of these names represents the kind, height and shape of cloud. Clouds are part of the water cycle and are made of ice crystals. They float along the air and are subject to the direction of wind currents.
Wind is air in motion. Scientists work hard to harness the power of wind in order to create energy for a renewable energy source. When the sun heats the Earth unevenly, this causes air to blow since heat rises. Wind direction determines the direction of weather like thunderstorms, hurricanes, blizzards and tornadoes.
Climate changes affect the earth’s temperatures. Ice melts at the poles. Storms pop up in unusual places. Temperature change on a climatic scale is called global warming, a controversial idea. Some people do not believe in global warming as it happens gradually and in cycles. Others believe that humans have created technology that added to global warming, hastening it. Whenever the earth rises or lowers a few degrees as a whole, you will see changes in the environment: certain animals become endangered or extinct, food supplies in the ocean change as well as how food grows in your own garden.
There are many games online for you to learn about the weather. Most you will find on government and educational pages that teach about the environment. All the games have one goal in mind-to help you learn why weather and the environment react in certain ways. Search the links below for games and quizzes. Some links have games only, but most have games embedded within the site.
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