Thursday, August 30, 2007

Loop Current: A Hurricane Supercharger

What is that Bermuda High doing now? It is a question I heard frequently during the hurricane season.

When I spoke at weather seminars, met with residents at local malls during our hurricane expos, or was just stopped on the street, I was asked repeatedly about the Bermuda High. Hey, Mike, where's that Bermuda High? Is the Bermuda High going to be strong again this year?

The Bermuda High, a large area of high pressure centered over the island of Bermuda in the western Atlantic Ocean, became infamous during the 2004 hurricane season for steering Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne into Florida. The Bermuda High was unusually strong that year and in a perfect position to literally grab all four storms and drive them into the Sunshine State.

The exact location and strength of the Bermuda High changes from week to week and season to season. This year the high has been quite strong steering Hurricane Dean well south of the United States and into the Yucatan Peninsula.

While Floridians are often fixated on the Bermuda High, residents of the Gulf coast states are more interested in another weather phenomenon: the loop current. In 2005, the Loop Current helped create two of the most powerful and destructive hurricanes in history: Katrina and Rita.

The Loop Current is a river of very warm (over 85 degrees), very deep (2,400 feet in some areas) water that flows from the Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico, loops around to Louisiana and then exits the Gulf between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

For decades, the Loop Current has been a favorite location for fishing fleets seeking tuna and swordfish since the fish like to hang out in the warm waters. But, in recent years, meteorologists have been focusing on the Loop Current for its ability to turn an average tropical storm into a powerful monster.

A hurricane gets its energy from warm water, and therefore, the warmer the water, the higher the content of energy. When a topical system moves over a body of very warm, very deep water (like the Loop Current) its like a turbo charger for hurricanes. Suddenly, a category one hurricane can grow into a category five and do so very quickly.

Researchers at the University of Colorado traced Katrina and Rita's path through the Gulf of Mexico and across the Loop Current. In both instances, the storm's passage over the Loop Current's warm, deep waters transformed the systems into category five monsters.

In the case of Rita, the hurricane had sustained winds of 90 mph before entering the Loop Current. Over the next 24 hours, as Rita passed over the Loop Current, her wind speed increased to 175 mph. Rita's barometric pressure fell to 897 millibars, the third lowest on record in the Atlantic Basin.

When Rita moved away from the Loop Current, over somewhat cooler waters in the northern Gulf of Mexico, the storm weakened before making landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border as a still formidable category three hurricane with sustained winds of 120 mph.

Scientists say the Loop Current waters have been warmer than average during the 2005 hurricane season. They are not sure why, but they know, especially in the case of Katrina and Rita, that the Loop Current has played a crucial role in the incredible 2005 hurricane season.

Posted at 10:13 AM