A Huge Tropical Storm Seen FROOOM SPAAAACE

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June 16 2014 12:04 PM

Tropical Cyclone Cristina From Space

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Tropical cyclone Cristina, when it was 1000 km (600+ miles) in size.

Photo by LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Teamat NASA GSFC

This gorgeous picture (and yes, you want to see it in all its jaw-dropping full-resolution glory) shows tropical cyclone Cristina, a massive storm off the coast of Mexico. It formed in early June 2014 and grew incredibly rapidly. When this image was taken by the Aqua satellite on June 12, Cristina’s 240 kph (150 mph) winds made it the equivalent of a Category 4 hurricane.

For the first time on record, two Category 4-equivalent storms have formed in the North Pacific basin before July (the first was Amanda, which formed in late May). Cristina didn’t last long, though; it’s already fading considerably. It’s heading slowly northwest and isn’t expected to make landfall anywhere.

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Storms like this are fascinating. Warm ocean water heats the air above it, which responds by rising. Cooler air from around it flows in, heats, and rises as well. When it gets high enough the water vapor condenses, giving up the water’s heat to the air around it, further powering the convection (the term for rising of warm air and sinking of cooler air). When the system gets big enough it starts to rotate due to the Coriolis effect. What’s created is a heat engine: the redistribution of heat in the water and air on a huge scale, and the warmth from the ocean water underneath is what fuels it.

Right now, El Niño conditions are likely arising in the Pacific. This is when the Pacific equatorial water is warmer, which in turn can fuel tropical storms. Wind shear (the change in air speed from lower in the atmosphere to the top of the troposphere) plays an important role as well. All in all, a normal to above-normal hurricane season is predicted for the eastern Pacific this year.

It’s not a lock, but if El Niño does arise, it could mean more rain later this year for the western parts of the U.S., including drought-stricken California (and Colorado, where I live, and from where much of the west gets its water). That would be very welcome, even if it means less star gazing. But there’s no guarantee how strong an El Niño will be. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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