How Are Hurricane Categories Determined?

NOAA via Getty Images
NOAA via Getty Images

Residents of Panama City and other areas in the Florida Panhandle are in the midst of Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm that Governor Rick Scott warned is the "worst storm" to hit the area "in a century."

Given that North Carolina is still battling the effects of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall less than a month ago, we've become accustomed to hearing about hurricanes, and to predicting what sort of damage they might cause based on their category number. But how do meteorologists categorize these often-deadly storms, and how does that scale work?

First, a quick primer: Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that occur in the Atlantic Ocean and have winds with a sustained speed of at least 74 mph. A tropical cyclone, in turn, is a storm system that develops in the tropics and is characterized by a low pressure center and thunderstorms that produce strong winds, rain, and storm surges. Tropical cyclone is a generic name that refers to the storms' geographic origin and cyclonic rotation around a central eye. Depending on their location and strength, the storms are called different things. What gets dubbed a hurricane in the Atlantic, for example, would be called a typhoon if it happened in the northwestern Pacific.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HURRICANE AND A TROPICAL STORM?

Simply put: Wind speed. When tropical cyclones are just starting out as general areas of low pressure with the potential to strengthen, they’re called tropical depressions. They’re given sequential numbers as they form during a storm season so the National Hurricane Center (NHC) can keep tabs on them.

Once a cyclone’s winds kick up to 39 miles per hour and sustain that speed for 10 minutes, it becomes a tropical storm and the NHC gives it a name. If the cyclone keeps growing and sustains 74 mph winds, it graduates to hurricane.

ONCE WE CALL IT A HURRICANE, HOW DO WE CATEGORIZE IT?

In order to assign a numeric category value to a hurricane, meteorologists look to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which was developed as a classification system for Western Hemisphere tropical cyclones in the late 1960s and early '70s by structural engineer Herbert Saffir and his friend, meteorologist Robert Simpson, who was the director of the NHC at the time.

When Saffir was working on a United Nations project to study low-cost housing in hurricane-prone areas, it struck him that there was no simple, standardized way of describing hurricanes and their damaging effects, like the way the Richter scale is used to describe earthquakes. He created a five-level scale based on wind speed and sent it off to Simpson, who expanded on it to include the effects on storm surge and flooding. Simpson began using it internally at the NHC, and then in reports shared with emergency agencies. It proved useful, so others began adopting it and it quickly spread.

HOW DOES THE SCALE WORK?

According to the NHC, the scale breaks down like this:

Category 1 storms have sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph. These “very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding, and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days."

Category 2 storms have sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph. These “extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks."

Category 3 storms have sustained winds of 111 to 129 mph. This is the first category that qualifies as a “major storm” and “devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes."

Category 4 storms have sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph. These storms are “catastrophicand damage includes: “Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Category 5 storms have sustained winds of 157 mph or higher. The catastrophic damage entailed here includes: “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

While the Saffir-Simpson scale is useful, it isn’t the be-all and end-all for measuring storms, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out on Twitter in 2013:

IS THERE ANYTHING WORSE THAN A CATEGORY 5?

Not on paper, but there have been hurricanes that have gone beyond the upper bounds of the scale. Hypothetically, hurricanes could up the ante beyond Category 5 more regularly. The storms use warm water to fuel themselves and as ocean temperatures rise, climatologists predict that potential hurricane intensity will increase.

Both Saffir and Simpson have said that there’s no need to add more categories because once things go beyond 157 mph, the damage all looks the same: really, really bad. Still, that hasn't stopped several scientists from suggesting that maybe the time has come to consider a Category 6 addition.

Timothy Hall, a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently told the Los Angeles Times that if the current global warming trends continue, he can foresee a time—likely by the end of the century—where wind speeds could blow past 230 mph, which could create conditions similar to a F-4 tornado (which has the power to lift cars off the ground and send them hurtling through the air with relative ease).

“If we had twice as many Category 5s—at some point, several decades down the line—if that seems to be the new norm, then yes, we’d want to have more partitioning at the upper part of the scale,” Hall said. “At that point, a Category 6 would be a reasonable thing to do."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

Why Does Humidity Make Us Feel Hotter?

Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images
Tomwang112/iStock via Getty Images

With temperatures spiking around the country, we thought it might be a good time to answer some questions about the heat index—and why humidity makes us feel hotter.

Why does humidity make us feel hotter?

To answer that question, we need to talk about getting sweaty.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class, one of the ways our bodies cool themselves is by sweating. The sweat then evaporates from our skin, and it carries heat away from the body as it leaves.

Humidity throws a wrench in that system of evaporative cooling, though. As relative humidity increases, the evaporation of sweat from our skin slows down. Instead, the sweat just drips off of us, which leaves us with all of the stinkiness and none of the cooling effect. Thus, when the humidity spikes, our bodies effectively lose a key tool that could normally be used to cool us down.

What's relative about relative humidity?

We all know that humidity refers to the amount of water contained in the air. However, as the air’s temperature changes, so does the amount of water the air can hold. (Air can hold more water vapor as the temperature heats up.) Relative humidity compares the actual humidity to the maximum amount of water vapor the air can hold at any given temperature.

Whose idea was the heat index?

While the notion of humidity making days feel warmer is painfully apparent to anyone who has ever been outside on a soupy day, our current system owes a big debt to Robert G. Steadman, an academic textile researcher. In a 1979 research paper called, “An Assessment of Sultriness, Parts I and II,” Steadman laid out the basic factors that would affect how hot a person felt under a given set of conditions, and meteorologists soon used his work to derive a simplified formula for calculating heat index.

The formula is long and cumbersome, but luckily it can be transformed into easy-to-read charts. Today your local meteorologist just needs to know the air temperature and the relative humidity, and the chart will tell him or her the rest.

Is the heat index calculation the same for everyone?

Not quite, but it’s close. Steadman’s original research was founded on the idea of a “typical” person who was outdoors under a very precise set of conditions. Specifically, Steadman’s everyman was 5’7” tall, weighed 147 pounds, wore long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, and was walking at just over three miles per hour into a slight breeze in the shade. Any deviations from these conditions will affect how the heat/humidity combo feels to a certain person.

What difference does being in the shade make?

Quite a big one. All of the National Weather Service’s charts for calculating the heat index make the reasonable assumption that folks will look for shade when it’s oppressively hot and muggy out. Direct sunlight can add up to 15 degrees to the calculated heat index.

How does wind affect how dangerous the heat is?

Normally, when we think of wind on a hot day, we think of a nice, cooling breeze. That’s the normal state of affairs, but when the weather is really, really hot—think high-90s hot—a dry wind actually heats us up. When it’s that hot out, wind actually draws sweat away from our bodies before it can evaporate to help cool us down. Thanks to this effect, what might have been a cool breeze acts more like a convection oven.

When should I start worrying about high heat index readings?

The National Weather Service has a handy four-tiered system to tell you how dire the heat situation is. At the most severe level, when the heat index is over 130, that's classified as "Extreme Danger" and the risk of heat stroke is highly likely with continued exposure. Things get less scary as you move down the ladder, but even on "Danger" days, when the heat index ranges from 105 to 130, you probably don’t want to be outside. According to the service, that’s when prolonged exposure and/or physical activity make sunstroke, heat cramps, and heat exhaustion likely, while heat stroke is possible.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Is the Heat Index Real?

MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images
MarianVejcik/iStock via Getty Images

Complaining about the humidity is a mainstay of small talk. “It’s not the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity” is a common refrain around the South, just as “it’s a dry heat” is a go-to line in the desert Southwest. The clichés aren’t wrong on this one—a hot and humid day can have a dramatic effect on both your comfort and your health. We can measure this very real impact on your body using the heat index. 

The heat index is the temperature it feels like to your body when you factor in both the actual air temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. If the heat index is 103°F, that means that the combination of heat and humidity has a similar physical impact on your body as it would if the actual air temperature were 103°F. Even though it’s tempting to think of the heat index as an exaggerated temperature that only exists to make the heat sound worse than it really is, scientists came up with the measurements after decades of medical and meteorological research devoted to studying the impact of heat and humidity on the human body. It’s the real deal.

The dew point is an important component of the heat index. The dew point is the temperature at which the air would reach 100 percent relative humidity, or become fully saturated with moisture like on a foggy morning. Since cooler air can’t hold as much moisture as warmer air, lower dew points reflect lower moisture levels and higher dew points indicate higher moisture levels. Dew points below 60°F are comfortable, while readings reaching 70°F and even 80°F range from muggy to downright oppressive.

Measuring humidity on a hot day is important because moisture is how your body naturally cools itself off. Your sweat cools the surface of your skin through a process known as evaporative cooling. If the air is packed with moisture, it takes longer for your sweat to evaporate than it would in more normal conditions, preventing you from cooling off efficiently. The inability to lower your body temperature when it’s hot can quickly lead to medical emergencies like heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which is why the heat index is such an important measurement to pay attention to during the summer months.

The heat index is generally considered “dangerous” once the value climbs above 105°F, and your risk of falling ill increases the higher the heat index climbs.

Dry climates can have the opposite effect on your body, with the distinct lack of moisture in the air making it feel cooler to your body than it really is. Summers get oppressively hot in places like Arizona and Iraq, but the heat doesn’t affect residents as severely because the air is extremely dry. Dew points in desert regions can hover at or below 32°F even when the air temperature is well above 100°F, which is about as dry as it can get in the natural world.  

In 2016, a city in Kuwait measured the all-time highest confirmed temperature ever recorded in the eastern hemisphere, where temperatures climbed to a sweltering 129°F during the day on July 21, 2016. The dew point there at the same time was nearly 100 degrees cooler, leading to a heat index of just 110°F, much lower than the actual air temperature. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Extreme heat combined with extreme aridity can make your sweat evaporate too efficiently, quickly dehydrating you and potentially leading to medical emergencies similar to those you would experience in a much more humid region of the world. 

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER