Watching the development of hurricanes in recent weeks has become an almost morbid-like fascination for many Americans who aren’t directly impacted by them. It has been the craziest Hurricane Season in memory for many people, myself included. After growing up in Southwest Florida and having to dodge many storms (and also sitting in science classes in Middle School and High School where this was a favorite subject of many lecturers), I thought I knew a lot about them. But this year has been full of many extreme lessons which appear to be humbling the most seasoned weather forecasters.
The language used to describe some of the storms makes one wonder, “What are the weather forecasters watching on TV at night and what are they eating – horror movies and deep-fried, chocolate-coated, spicy foods from a carnival?” For example, Hurricane Maria was so big when it was a Category 5 storm hitting Caribbean islands, they called it “Monster Maria”. Hurricane Lee downgraded from a Category 1 hurricane to a tropical depression, and then regained strength where it suddenly developed into a Category 3 storm. What did the forecasters call this one? A “Zombie Storm” – as in “it was dead and came back to life”. Maybe with Halloween coming at the end of October, meteorologists thought this hurricane season paralleled the old 1950’s song, “The Monster Mash”.
As this is being written, Maria is now downgraded to a tropical low pressure system – now it is a rain storm which will likely bring showers to the United Kingdom in the next few days. Lee moved in proximity of northern France and got absorbed by another larger storm system that will be affecting the continent early this week. It’s hard to imagine now that these were “potentially killer storms” that a weary American South dreaded coming up the Gulf Stream after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slammed into Texas and South Florida. Then, there was Hurricane Jose that flitted up the Gulf Stream off the East Coast and neighbors in more northerly US states were concerned that areas hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 were likely to be hit again. But Jose just meandered past the metropolitan population centers – of course dropping copious rain – but the eye never made landfall as predicted. Then, Jose sat out in the Atlantic and kept hanging on for several days later.
For a while, it looked like Jose and Maria could come close together to the point where the Fujiwhara Effect could occur. Then, Maria acted like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up the slowly-dissipating, residual clouds and low pressure system from the middle deep south (i.e., west Georgia and eastern Alabama) that was left over from Hurricane Irma. After accumulating some strength, Hurricane Maria then moved up the East Coast to the North Carolinian outer banks and islands; while Hurricane Lee moved north of the Bahama Islands to the point where it looked like these two storms were going to dance some sort of gruesome tango at sea (while Jose finally faded away over cooler waters between Nova Scotia and Greenland). On Thursday and Friday of last week, the US National Weather Service kept predicting that Maria and Lee were likely going to be at the exact latitudes and longitudes either at the same time or within hours of each other. (The National Weather Service always have their “cone of uncertainty” for the next 5 days indicating where the hurricanes could possibly travel, and the cones for the two storms remarkably overlaid each other for a couple of days.) But, even though they looked like they were on the same track, the two hurricanes weren’t close enough together to affect the other one.
So, what is this mysterious Fujiwhara effect? According to Wikipedia, it is a “binary interaction... when two nearby cyclonic vortices orbit each other and close the distance between the circulations of their corresponding low-pressure areas. The effect is named after Sakuhei Fujiwhara, the Japanese meteorologist who initially described the effect. Binary interaction of smaller circulations can cause the development of a larger cyclone, or cause two cyclones to merge into one.”
According to meteorologists who have described this for laypeople, the two severe, rotating storms have to come within 900 miles of each other before they begin to circle around each other, almost like ballroom dancing pairs who whirl around each other on the dance floor. As they circle around, the eyes of the two disturbances become closer and closer together, and the eye walls begin to merge. It’s happened before – one Atlantic Ocean example was in 1995 when Hurricanes Humberto and Iris (now, it really sounds like a ballroom dancing team!) merged together and then absorbed Tropical Storm Karen. (Now, this is sounding creepy again, like a cannibal tribe dancing around a large pot containing “a guest” for dinner!)
I wondered, if Maria and Jose merged, what would they call it? Would it be Hurricane Ma-Rosaria, Hurricane Marose (like morose), Hurricane Roma, Hurricane HoMar (like Homer Simpson?), or Hurricane MiaJose? Some irreverent Catholics I know said, “Name it Jesus!” But it wasn’t meant to be. Nor did we end up with a Hurricane MariLee, LeMar, Mia-Lire (like “my Italian money!”), or Lei-Ma-Rae (as in a flower bearer/greeter at the Honolulu airport).
While the US was watching all of the storms from Harvey through Lee, Mexico had its share of storms – Katia, Max, and Pilar. The moisture from Pilar ended up here in western Oklahoma, pulled northward by a low pressure system in Arizona and New Mexico, providing us with some more much-needed rain. There is a disorganized mess of storm centers between the Yucatan peninsula, Cuba, and Southwest Florida and the US National Weather Center is watching all of this mish-mosh with great interest and diligence.
Hopefully, the rains from Maria and Lee will not cause difficulties in the UK or France, and I hope with all my heart my favorite old Irish Blessing is true for our European friends:
“May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind ever be at your back
May the sun shine warmly on your face,
And the rains fall softly on your fields.
And until we meet again,
May G-d hold you in The Palm of His Hands”.
Happy Sukkot to everybody! (And I hope nobody’s feast gets rained out!) To those who have been adversely impacted by the hurricanes, I hope and pray for you that you have all the resources that you need, that you have all the help you need, and that this nightmare will be over for you soon! Be well!