Something So Tiny Has a Big Effect on the Course of a Hurricane

Filed in Uncategorized by on September 30, 2010 0 Comments

Fall is hurricane season, and we have already seen five plus hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean.  Interesting discoveries show that microscopic plants on the ocean floor may be able to change the path of a 300-mile-wide hurricane.  The secret to these tiny plants is their vast numbers.

Known as the “grass of the sea,” phytoplankton are the most plentiful marine live.  Like grass the phytoplankton capture the sun’s energy using chlorophyll (light absorbing green pigment).  When the phytoplankton grows all at once it can change the ocean’s color from deep clear blue to murky turquoise.

The turquoise color stops that sun from penetrating as far down into the surface of the sea, and causes the surface layer to be much warmer near the surface and cold below.  As a result, hurricanes in these areas tend to last longer and are stronger.  These research comes from computer modeling from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Water movement makes it very difficult to isolate the effect of ocean temperature.

The simulation showed that there was a 15% drop in the number of hurricanes that formed each year.  The hurricanes that were not pushed north fizzled around the equator.  Why does this happen? Removing the phytoplankton the sun can go deeper into the ocean cooling the surface.  As a result, the air cools above the surface, and enables cool dry air to come down.  When a hurricane enters this large-scale cool, dry air-descending area, the moist warm air that rises is countered by the cooler dry air, and thus weakening the hurricane.

Photo source: nasa.gov

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