Explain hurricanes to kids: How do storms form and what damage can they cause?

By Alexa Lewis, AccuWeather staff writer

A hurricane is a large rotating storm with high speeds of wind that gust at least 74 mph that forms over warm waters in tropical areas.

“It’s a really big warm storm, almost like the summer version of a blizzard,” AccuWeather Meteorologist Todd Miner said.



Children, especially those who live along coastal areas, should understand what a hurricane is and how to prepare for one. Students at Huntingdon Area Middle School in Pennsylvania start off learning about hurricanes from concepts covered while learning about meteorology including how heat rises and circulates, according to the school's eighth grade science teachers Allison Goodman and Todd Quinter.

Hurricanes develop from tropical storms, AccuWeather Meteorologist Bob Larson said. But, only some tropical storms fully evolve into hurricanes, which is determined based on the storm’s wind speed.

A tropical storm has a wind speed of up to 73 mph, but winds greater than 74 mph are classified as hurricanes. Hurricanes can then be classified into five different categories based on, again, their wind speed.

But, hurricanes don’t randomly form out of tropical storms; it takes a particular set of ingredients, Larson said.

“You can give me all the ingredients to make a cake, but if I don’t know how to make a cake, I’ll make a mess,” he said in his analogy of how a hurricane may or may not form. “You have to put the ingredients together for it to create a cake.”

These ingredients, Larson said, are the right amount of wind and warm water. A steady and quiet wind is important in sustaining a hurricane.

“If you were to try to light birthday candles in front of a fan, it would blow out the candles,” Larson said. “Similarly, if there is a lot of wind high in the atmosphere, it will not let the hurricane form.”

Or, Miner said children can envision a top spinning on a table. Enough wind speed or a sudden change in direction could change the rotation of the top or even knock it over.

Warm water is the second ingredient a hurricane needs, and the ideal water temperature for a hurricane to develop is close to the 80 F mark, Miner said.

Imagine that warm water is fuel to the hurricane in the same way that gasoline powers a lawn mower or a car, Larson said.

Too much dry air can also quiet a storm if it is pulled into the storm's circulation and it can disrupt the entire structure of the hurricane.

Hurricanes are structured to rotate around a circular area at the center of the storm called the "eye" of the hurricane, which is an area of comparably light winds and calmer weather, according to NOAA.

A Hurricane Eye V2017.jpg

Larson said he remembers a little league game in Pennsylvania where coaches moved the game to an earlier time because of an impending hurricane. What coaches forgot was that damages and dangerous winds can reach an area before the eye of the storm arrives.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) provide the coordinates for where the center of the storm is, but people tend to forget that the adverse weather from the storm fans out for potentially over 100 miles away from the center of the storm. Had coaches pushed the little league game to later in the day instead of moving it forward they could have avoided a rainy, windy game.

Hurricanes can die as they move north

Goodman and Quinter said children are often interested in understanding why hurricanes begin to “die” as they move north.

Hurricanes weaken as they move north when they encounter land or cooler water.

Hurricanes form over warm water, as Larson explained, but some begin to weaken as they travel across land. Mountainous terrains found across many inland areas can disrupt the swirling circulation of hurricanes.

For example, in an incident that Larson recalls, a hurricane hit the western side of Florida, but it was still traveling at next to full force by the time it reached the eastern side of Florida. Larson described Florida’s relatively flat terrain as only a small speed bump for the hurricane. A more rugged landscape may have changed the power of the storm.

Hurricanes can still be powerful when they reach the northern states due to the warmer waters located off the East coast, associated with the Gulf Stream.

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How hurricanes are named

Students are often interested in the way hurricanes are named, Goodman and Quinter both said.

Tropical storms and hurricanes have been named from six lists of 21 names originated by the National Hurricane Center since the 1950s, according to NOAA. Each name on a list starts with a different letter of the alphabet.

Hurricanes cycle through a list of names alternating between male and female names. However, up until the 1970s, hurricanes were given only female names.

“Also when a storm becomes noteworthy like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, then that name is retired from the list, never to be used again,” Larson said.

The damages hurricanes cause

“The students are interested in the before-and-after pictures (and even years down the road pictures) to see what these monstrous storms can do,” Goodman and Quinter said. “They are also interested in real-life stories of people and families who maybe had different outcomes and experiences of going through a hurricane. Seeing movies, newspaper articles, pictures is big.”

hurricane matthew florida damage

H.V. Bailey looks at damage to a neighbor's home at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, after Hurricane Matthew passed through Friday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Hurricane dangers include high winds, torrential rain, hail, flooding, storm surge, rip currents and flying debris. Strong winds can knock down power lines and trees. During the strongest hurricanes, people may have to take shelter in a fortified public building or hurricane shelter.

Coastal areas can be damaged by a storm surge. Miner said a storm surge is like a piling up of water against the shoreline, which can vary from a few feet to over 10 feet during the most severe storms.

Miner compared a storm surge to sitting in a bathtub full of water and splashing or pushing the water to one side creating a wave of water that "surges" over to one side.

Larson said kids might wonder whether there is thunder and lightning during hurricanes. While there can be both during hurricanes, there is more often rain and wind, he said. Hurricanes can also spawn small tornadoes.

Unlike a tornado, which Larson compared to a burning building where people have to take immediate action to evacuate, people generally have time to prepare for a hurricane.

While there is a difference between hurricanes and tornadoes, there is no difference between hurricanes and typhoons. Typhoons develop in the Western Pacific Ocean, but these storms are called hurricanes when they develop in the Atlantic Ocean.

During a hurricane, as well as a typhoon, children can prepare by gathering toys out of the yard and by securing their bicycles, so that these objects don’t get blown away. They can also help their parents prepare evacuation supplies. Parents might also want to teach their children how to dial 911 and make sure they are familiar with the evacuation plan.

“We teach our students to be aware – listen to the news and the weather so that they know what is going on so that if a hurricane will possibly hit, they can become prepared,” Goodman and Quinter said.

Students should learn to stay indoors in a sturdy building, stay away from the windows and stay inside until the storm has passed.

Ashley Wallace, a high school meteorology teacher, contributed to Goodman and Quinter's responses.

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