The science of Hurricane Katrina

A huge category 4 hurricane (winds 131-155 mph) named Katrina struck the US gulf coast Monday morning, August 28th. Many of the major news outlets will have stories covering the hurricane.  Science Buzz will strive to bring you a perspective on the science behind this awesome force of nature and its human effect.

Waters rise quickly

For a unique perspective on storm's surge, check out the live USGS stream-flow gauges in the New Orleans, LA area.
The stream-flow gauges measure the water levels at various places around the state and are updated by computer every 15-60 minutes. As Hurricane Katrina came inland it brought with it enormous surges in the water level. At several of these gauges around the area you can see the sharp rise in the water levels starting near the middle of the day on Sunday (28th).

Unique images of the storm

NASA's MODIS satellites captured this amazing high-res image of the storm on Sunday (28th) while the storm was still many miles out from the shore.  This unique image allows you to see great detail in the clouds that swirl around the eye of the storm.

As the storm grew closer to the coast people started to feel the horrible effects of the energy wrapped up in this weather system. There are several sets of photos on the community photo sharing website, Flickr, that show what people in the area are experiencing.

Photos tagged: hurricane + katrina

Photos tagged: hurricane + louisiana

Have you ever been in a hurricane? Can you imagine what it might be like?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Here are some local bloggers reporting from New Orleans:
Metroblogging New Orleans
Powerful Katrina
Katrina skins Supperdome

More soon.
bryan kennedy
Science Buzz Site Admin

posted on Mon, 08/29/2005 - 12:11pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Entergy, the New Orleans area power company, says the area should be prepared to be without power for at least a month! A city without power for that long will have a very hard time recovering from a disaster of this scale.

The San Fransisco Gate has some stunning photos of the damage as well as the situation inside the Superdome which is acting as a shelter for people who could not evacuate.

More photos from New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath show some significant flooding inside the city.
bryan kennedy
Science Buzz Site Admin

posted on Mon, 08/29/2005 - 1:23pm
bryan kennedy's picture

NASA has a great website about current research into the factors that drive hurricanes. By using satellites like WINDS, that are starting to understand more about hurricanes by looking at the winds they produce from space.

posted on Tue, 08/30/2005 - 9:52am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I really think Katrina was twice as bad as Rita!

posted on Fri, 11/11/2005 - 12:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Yeah no duh! Hurricane Katrina was devastating! Nearly as bad as the tsunami! Rita barely made the news up here in Canada, while Katrina was on EVERY SINGLE CHANNEL... other then channels like "teletoon" and "Family channel" to name a few

posted on Fri, 11/18/2005 - 8:23pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

katrina was bad as you know what and ritas was just icing on the cake

posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 7:34am
bryan kennedy's picture

Grim reports from New Orleans neighborhoods.

The New Orleans Picayune newspaper has a forum where local residents have been posting their concerns about loved ones and their property. Many are concerned that water levels are rising due to a break in the levees holding back Lake Pontchartrain.

posted on Tue, 08/30/2005 - 5:46pm
secret's picture
secret says:

this is a very informational site thank you very much. it helped me in my school assignment.

posted on Wed, 08/31/2005 - 6:33pm
katrina's picture
katrina says:

I think that you worte a great stroy on the hurricane katrina it came 2 my eyes becaysemy name is katrina and it was kind of kool learnin about the hurricane more an how it is hurtin alot of people thanks 4 tellin me more about it

posted on Thu, 09/01/2005 - 6:55pm
anonymous's picture
anonymous says:

i think it very cool your named after the hurrican you must be soooooooo proud

posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 7:32am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

WOW!!! Realy cool pictures!!!

posted on Thu, 09/08/2005 - 7:35pm
Martin Kemp of the uk's picture
Martin Kemp of the uk says:

Hurricane Katrina I thought was a devestation to all of America and England we are sending rescorses to help out New Orleans and the states hit by the hurricane

posted on Tue, 09/13/2005 - 10:21am
Bianca's picture
Bianca says:

Science Question on Katrina:

i have to do something on hurricane katrina for science and one of the questions i can't find an answer to is this: how has science helped the people and the environment to recover from this natural disaster?
can you please put something about that on this site?
Very much appreciated, Bj

posted on Thu, 09/15/2005 - 12:12am
Joe's picture
Joe says:

The National Center for Atmospheric Research released a story about how the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes worldwide has nearly doubled over the past 35 years, even though the total number of hurricanes has dropped since the 1990s.

posted on Fri, 09/16/2005 - 11:14am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

This chart, also from the NOAA, shows the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the US over the last 35 years is as low or lower than in previous periods. I wonder what causes the discrepancy between this and world-wide figures?

posted on Sun, 09/18/2005 - 7:57pm
RussD's picture
RussD says:

Most of the additional hurricanes are forming in the North Atlantic "where they have become more numerous and longer lasting." Most of the hurricanes that hit the US originate in the mid south Atlantic off the west coast of Africa.

Russ Durkee

posted on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 12:30pm
Joan's picture
Joan says:

I am writing a novel and a small section has to do witha mega-yacht caught in a hurricane. I have tried many combinations of words to find a similar situation with a ship at sea caught in the middle of a hurricane - I can find the story of the huge windjammer - but my story has to do with a motor yacht. Can you tell me where I can find a ship that has encountered a hurricane at sea and is too large to go to a hurricane hole. Thank you. JC

posted on Sat, 01/26/2008 - 11:37am
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Scientists are already beginning to study the Gulf region to exmaine the environmental impact of Hurricane Katrina from chemical spills, sewer overflows or other poisons that washed into the Gulf of Mexico.

posted on Fri, 09/16/2005 - 1:16pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Naming Hurricanes

With Tropical Storm (soon to be Hurricane) Rita menacing the Florida coast, are you wondering how many names the National Hurricane Center has left for this year and what happens when they're all used up?

There are four storm designations left for this year: Stan, Tammy, Vince, and Wilma.

If those are used up, storms will be named in order from the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, etc. (Meteorologists have never had to use the Greek names since they started naming hurricanes in 1953. And there is still more than a month left in this year's hurricane season!)

Originally, the National Weather Service picked up on the Navy's convention of using women's names to designate storms (tropical storms are named, as well as hurricanes). In 1979, the National Weather Service began alternating between men's and women's names.

There are six alphabetical lists of names for North Atlantic storms. The lists rotate, one each year, so this year's list of names won't be reused until 2011. The names of particularly devastating storms, though, aren't recycled. For example, there will never be another Hurricane Andrew. Instead, "Alex" has replaced Andrew on the list. I'm betting that "Katrina" won't appear on the 2011 list...

posted on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 3:13pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Can you possibly educate me on this? What is the origin of the name Katrina as a name given to a very destructive hurricane? That is, was Katrina a name of a wicked Queen or something?

posted on Tue, 09/27/2005 - 8:29am
bryan kennedy's picture

Nope, I think they pick the names somewhat at random. They are not named after anyone in particular. But it can be hard sometimes if you share that name. I have a friend named Katrina and she is getting quite tired of jokes about the hurricane name. In case you want to see if your name will ever be a hurricane, check out the list for future hurricane seasons. They also have a history of the naming conventions.

posted on Tue, 09/27/2005 - 10:54am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Atlantic hurricane season officially ended on November 30th, with Hurricane Epsilon swirling to life near Bermuda.

Epsilon was the record-breaking 26th storm of the season, but it was not expected to come ashore anywhere, and meteorologists predicted that it would change course and weaken over colder water.

Though the season is now "over," December storms are still a possibility if surface water remains warm.

posted on Fri, 12/02/2005 - 9:51am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

While the grim work of recovery continues in New Orleans, here's a list of the 10 most deadly hurricanes in American history. You can also find out about the costliest and most intense hurricanes in American history at CNN's special Hurricane Season website. (I have a special fondness for Hurricane Agnes, the 8th most expensive hurricane; I was born in D.C. while the storm's high winds and torrential rains hammered the city.)

1. Galveston, TX, September 1900
(This Category 4 hurricane was the deadliest natural disaster in American history, leveling 12 city blocks and killing 8,000-12,000 people.)
2. Lake Okeechobee, FL, September 1928
(Florida residents had little warning of this Category 4 storm, which hit the Lake Obeechobee area near Palm Beach and broke a levee around the lake, killing 1,836 people.)
3. Florida Keys and Corpus Christi, TX, September 1919
(Many of the 600-900 victims of this Category 4 hurricane were on ships at sea.)
4. New England, September 1938
(This Category 3 storm brought high winds and flooding to most of New England. It destroyed 8,000 homes and 6,000 boats, and killed at least 600 people.)
5. Florida Keys ("The Great Labor Day Storm"), September 1935
(The most intense Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the US killed 423 people.)
6. Southwest LA, Northeast TX (Hurricane Audrey), June 1957
(Many of Hurricane Audrey's victims thought they had a day left to escape the storm, but the Category 4 hurricane accelerated, flooding the Louisiana coast and killing 390 people.)
7. Northeastern US ("The Great Atlantic Hurricane"), September 1944
(More than 300 of the 394 deaths caused by this Category 3 storm were people lost at sea.)
8. Louisiana ("The Grand Isle Hurricane"), September 1909
(This Category 4 hurricane passed inland between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, causing $6 million in damage and killing at least 350 people.)
9. New Orleans, LA, September 1915
(Lake Pontchartrain overflowed when this Category 4 hurricane hit New Orleans, flooding the city and killing 275 people. Scary case of deja vu, huh?)
10. Galveston, TX, September 1915
(Galveston residents built a seawall in the aftermath of the 1900 hurricane, but 275 people were still killed when the storm--the second Category 4 strike on the Gulf of Mexico coast in the same year--hit.)

posted on Mon, 09/19/2005 - 3:51pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science--the publishers of Science--have made a bunch of resources, including a selection of relevant articles from Science and a Q&A session with a hurricane researcher, available on their website.

posted on Tue, 09/20/2005 - 1:20pm
CrazedFred's picture
CrazedFred says:

What's the word on Rita? CNN says that it has reached Cat-5 status.

posted on Wed, 09/21/2005 - 6:19pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Rita, drawing on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, will be one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. mainland. (Only three Category 5 storms are known to have hit the U.S. mainland; the most recent one was Hurricane Andrew, which devastated coastal Florida in 1992.) It's a huge storm--370 miles across--with sustained winds of at least 165 miles per hour and even higher gusts.

The hurricane is expected to come ashore on Saturday somewhere between Galveston and Corpus Christi. But the storm is so big that even a slight right turn could destroy New Orleans' fragile levees. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says that the levees can handle only 6 inches of rain and a storm surge of 10-12 feet. (Incidentally, Galveston was the site of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history; in 1900, a monster hurricane destroyed the city and killed 6-12,000 people.)

Right now, more than 1.3 million people are under mandatory evacuation orders. Texas Governor Rick Perry, having learned Katrina's lessons, is preparing the state for a worst-case scenario. President Bush has declared states of emergency in Texas and Louisiana, allowing FEMA to coordinate plans, and workers at the South Texas Project nuclear power plant are shutting the facility down before Rita arrives.

And watch for rising gas prices. The threatened oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico produce more than 25% of total U.S. oil output.

posted on Wed, 09/21/2005 - 9:40pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The Louisiana State University Earth Scan Lab has been posting satellite photos of Katrina's aftermath.

posted on Fri, 09/23/2005 - 3:22pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Really cool NASA satellite photos and animations of Katrina and her aftermath. This site is frequently updated.

posted on Fri, 09/23/2005 - 4:04pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Experts have been worrying about the "toxic soup" caused as the flood waters from New Orleans were pumped into Lake Pontchartrain. According to The Washington Post, "...that water contains pesticides, herbicides, household chemicals, gasoline from cars and at least two large oil spills, asbestos from building materials, heavy metals from batteries, whatever has leaked out of local toxic waste dumps and Superfund sites, bacteria from corpses and animal carcasses, and dirt containing unusually high levels of lead, long present in New Orleans's soil."

But government scientists sampling the waters of Lake Pontchartrain have been (somewhat) pleasantly surprised. The water is polluted, there's no getting around that. But levels of toxins and bacteria are much lower than they initially feared.

(The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posts some sampling data, although sampling has been temporarily suspended while Rita hammers New Orleans.)

posted on Fri, 09/23/2005 - 10:39pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Scientists have proposed a lot of theoretical techniques to try to alter or destroy hurricanes. Here's a sampling of the ideas proposed and the reasons why they won't work.

"Seed" the storm
In 1969 and 1971, researchers trying to weaken hurricanes "seeded" the rainbands (which spiral out from the center of the storm) of the storms with silver iodide. They were trying to enhance the thunderstorms of the rainbands, helping them to grow at the expense of the eyewall (which is the most damaging part of the storm). The 1969 hurricane did weaken slightly, but later research suggested that it would have weakened anyway, silver iodide or no. The seeding had no effect on the 1971 storm. The program that funded the seeding was discontinued in 1972.

Smoke it out
Researchers have also suggested burning oil to make soot that could be released on the edges of a hurricane. The soot would absorb solar radiation and transfer heat directly to the atmosphere. This should cause thunderstorms in the rainbands of the hurricane and weaken the convection activity that occurs within the eyewall. But no one has ever tried this in real life.

Cover it up
To maintain their intensity, hurricanes need huge amounts of water vapor evaporating from the ocean's surface. If you could stop that evaporation, you could probably stop or weaken a tropical storm. Researchers have tried to create a liquid that, when poured over the ocean, would prevent evaporation. But so far no one has finding a substance that would stop evaporation and stay together--like a film--in the rough seas of a hurricane.

Nuke it
People have even suggested using nuclear weapons to try and destroy hurricanes. There are (at least) two big problems with this idea:

The radioactive fallout would be quickly carried worldwide by the tradewinds, causing devastating health and environmental consequences. Not a good idea! (That's the part that we know.)

Here's where we get into speculation: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a fully developed hurricane can release heat energy at a rate equivalent to a 10-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. (In 1990 the entire human race combined used energy at a rate less that 20% of the power of a hurricane!) So even if we didn't mind the fallout, it probably wouldn't work anyway.

From the same NOAA fact sheet:

"In addition, an explosive, even a nuclear explosive, produces a shock wave, or pulse of high pressure, that propagates away from the site of the explosion somewhat faster than the speed of sound. Such an event doesn't raise the barometric pressure after the shock has passed because barometric pressure in the atmosphere reflects the weight of the air above the ground. For normal atmospheric pressure, there are about ten metric tons (1000 kilograms per ton) of air bearing down on each square meter of surface. In the strongest hurricanes there are nine. To change a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square meter inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for a 20 km radius eye. It's difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around."

Freeze it out
Hurricanes fall apart pretty quickly once they can't draw energy from warm surface water, so what about towing icebergs to the tropics to cool the ocean's surface temperature? Or somehow getting cold water from the ocean bottom to the surface?

Here's the NOAA fact sheet again:

"Consider the scale of what we are talking about. The critical region in the hurricane for energy transfer would be under or near the eyewall region. If the eyewall was thirty miles in diameter, that means an area of 700 square miles. Now if the hurricane is moving at 10 miles an hour it will sweep over 7200 square miles of ocean in a day. That's a lot of icebergs for just 24 hours of the cyclone's life. Now add in the uncertainty in the track, which is currently 100 miles at 24 hours and you have to increase your cool patch by 24,000 square miles. For the iceberg towing method you would have to increase your lead time even more (and hence the uncertainty and area cooled) or risk your fleet of tugboats getting caught by the storm."

If you were to try to pump water from the ocean's bottom, you'd have to create a system that could protect all hurricane-prone areas. NOAA says that protecting the area from Cape Hatteras, NC, to Brownsville, TX, would require 528,000 square miles of pipes or other devices.

Plus, suddenly cooling the surface layer of the ocean (and, if you used icebergs, turning it temporarily fresh), would have a dramatic negative impact on sea life.

All of these proposals make sense, in theory, but they are unworkable at the scale of a hurricane.

Again, the NOAA fact sheet:

"When Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992, the eye and eyewall devastated a swath 20 miles wide. The heat energy released around the eye was 5,000 times the combined heat and electrical power generation of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant over which the eye passed. The kinetic energy of the wind at any instant was equivalent to that released by a nuclear warhead."

For now, the best solution is not to alter or destroy tropical storms, but to minimize their impact on us. People in hurricane-prone areas have to know what to do when a storm is forecast, communities have to enforce building codes aimed at reducing damage, and researchers have to continue to improve their forecasting.

posted on Mon, 09/26/2005 - 4:04pm
Kerriyan's picture
Kerriyan says:

Well, instead of actually putting ice bergs in the water, why don't we freeze the hurricane with ice bombs. I know there is some kind of harmless chemical out there that can freeze things without hurting the environment. I know that planes fly in the middle of hurricanes to examine them, so why not have those planes send down a substance that slows the hurricane down to make it less dramatic. For instance the chemical in fire extinguishers stops fire, so why not use something like that to cool waters in the clouds that provides these dangerous hurricanes with energy?

posted on Tue, 09/27/2005 - 6:53am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The sheer size and scale of a hurricane makes it tough to weaken or stop. Period.

I've not heard of a harmless chemical that can freeze things without causing environmental damage. Even if the chemical itself were harmless, rapid temperature changes (even temporary ones) can be devastating to organisms living in the ocean.

It's not the clouds that fuel the hurricane; it's the warm surface water of the ocean. (See Russ's post about hurricane formation and feedback loops, and also this post about the Loop Current.) I don't know, actually, what artificially cooling the clouds would do to the storm, but maybe Russ does and can weigh in here.

Scientists at NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Hurricane Research Division, actually did some thinking about how people could dissipate the clouds of a hurricane. They wondered what dropping a special moisture-absorbing powder ("Dyn-O-Gel")into the clouds would do, and they used a computer model to try and figure it out. You can read all the details in the NOAA fact sheet, but the results suggested that the powder wouldn't have much of a minimizing effect, and might even strengthen a hurricane. The biggest problem with the idea, however, aside from the somewhat contradictory results, is the amount of powder that would be needed to make any impact at all. Here's how the NOAA fact sheet explains it:

"2 cm of rain falling over 1 square kilometer of surface deposits 20,000 metric tons of water. At the 2000-to-one ratio that the "Dyn-O-Gel" folks advertise, each square km would require 10 tons of goop. If we take the eye to be 20 km in diameter surrounded by a 20km thick eyewall, that's 3,769.91 square kilometers, requiring 37,699.1 tons of "Dyn-O-Gel". A C-5A heavy-lift transport airplane can carry a 100 ton payload. So that treating the eyewall would require 377 sorties. A typical average reflectivity in the eyewall is about 40 dB(Z), which works out to 1.3 cm/hr rain rate. Thus to keep the eyewall doped up, you'd need to deliver this much "Dyn-O-Gel" every hour-and-a-half or so. If you crank the reflectivity up to 43 dB(Z) you need to do it every hour. (If the eyewall is only 10 km thick, you can get by with 157 sorties every hour-and-a-half at the lower reflectivity.)"

The Dyn-O-Gel model shows that dropping anything onto a hurricane to try to slow or weaken it has a very low chance of working. Basically, hurricanes are just too big and powerful for us to impact them directly.

posted on Tue, 09/27/2005 - 11:12am
RussD's picture
RussD says:

Most of the ideas above suggest some sort of weather modification. These ideas have been around for a long time but currently little active field research is being done in this area. (cloud seeding or iceberge hauling for example...) According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences (2003), only about $500,000 annually was being spent whereas in the 1970s that number was around $20 million.

Weather modification is an uncertain science and past efforts as a whole have not been real promising. Part of the problem is that our understanding of cloud physics was not complete and it was difficult to see a clear cause and effect with experiments like this. For example...

Would the storm dissipate anyway if you had not seeded it?

How can that be proven?

How can someone tell if the experiment is say 50% effective? Compared to what?

It is not easy!

To top it all off, we do not know all of the details of what makes it rain. The good news is that there has been a lot of new understanding in cloud physics since the 1950-70s when weather modification was being funded.

The idea of cooling the inside of a cloud with something like CO2 or liquid nitrogen etc, might sound like a good idea but as Liza pointed out, we are dealing with HUGE amounts of energy. In one day the latent heat produced just by condensation of water in an average hurricane is several hundred times greater than the electrical output of every power plant in the world.

The only hope is to modify them early on in their life. But that requires a better understanding of weather modification and cloud microphysics.


posted on Tue, 09/27/2005 - 3:34pm
Allison's picture
Allison says:

One more altering suggestion:

Why can't you strategically "crop dust" with drops of liquid nitrogen into the Gulf (even if it's just in the dead spots) during hurricane season? Couldn't that be an affordable way to to lower the water temperature enough to weaken the categories of hurricanes that develop?

posted on Tue, 10/25/2005 - 10:36am
bryan kennedy's picture

I wonder if that would work. I have to admit that it would make me a little nervous to start messing with our natural weather system. I wonder if we started diffusing these hurricanes in the Gulf and the Atlantic if that would cause problems elsewhere.

posted on Tue, 10/25/2005 - 10:46am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

You're not the only person out there thinking along these lines. If you type "weaken hurricane nitrogen" into the Google search bar, you'll find a lot of discussion boards mulling over the possibility. But, again, there's a problem of scale: it would take an impossibly huge amount of liquid nitrogen to lower the ocean's temperature in any measurable way, even if we were able to precisely target the hurricane's path. And right now, path forecasting leaves a pretty big margin for error.

posted on Sun, 10/30/2005 - 8:49pm
Allison's picture
Allison says:

Thanks for the reply, Liza. I will check out the Google search. It's great to know others are seriously considering this idea. But I don't know where you got the impression that I was suggesting trying to lower the temperature of an ocean, or even particular paths of particular hurricanes. I'm only suggesting that, if it's not that hard or destructive a thing to do, folks who understand basic physics and sea storm systems ought to think up a plan around how best and when best to dispense optimal amounts of liquid nitrogen into Gulf of Mexico dead spots during the regular hurricane season and move on it before next hurricane season.

posted on Thu, 11/03/2005 - 9:44am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Sorry if I was unclear.

What I'm saying is that there is no way to get the amount of liquid nitrogen into the Gulf to lower even the surface water temperature enough to weaken a hurricane--even if that were an ecologically responsible thing to do, which it isn't. You'd need hundreds of flights by BIG cargo planes, flying directly into the storm. And they'd all have to drop their payloads within a very small time window. To minimize the amount of nitrogen you'd need, you'd have to be able to forecast the path of the hurricane precisely and put the nitrogen directly in front of it, and we don't have that kind of forecasting ability right now.

Experiments in hurricane modification a few decades ago actually seemed to intensify storms instead of weakening them. The general scientific consensus is that hurricanes are so big, and so incompletely understood, with so many variables acting on them, that the real solution is for people to adapt instead of trying to change the storms.

But do search the web. There are a lot of interesting ideas out there, and people are discussing why some of them should work, in theory, and why they might not in actual practice.

posted on Thu, 11/03/2005 - 10:20am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Habitat for Humanity volunteers built a house for Hurricane Katrina survivors here in Saint Paul. The house will be shipped down the Mississippi River to New Orleans by barge. You can watch the barge leave tomorrow morning from Shepard Road, near the Science Museum.

(Not really a science story, but kind of cool to watch, anyway.)

posted on Sun, 10/23/2005 - 9:08pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I keep seeing headlines that suggest that global warming may be driving hurricane activity, creating extra-powerful storms and more of them. Does this explain Katrina, Rita, Wilma, etc., or is 2005 just a fluke year?

posted on Wed, 10/26/2005 - 9:47pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Hurricanes and Global Warming

Great, question. The answer really is, we don't know. The large majority of scientists accept research that shows that global warming is real and is caused in part by human activity. Lean more in our Global Warming exhibits.

While we have good scientific methods that can measure changes in climate millions of years in the past, we don't have the same evidence for hurricane strength. Trends show hurricanes have been increasing in strength over the last couple years. But this simply isn't enough evidence to support a long-term trend that can be linked with global climate change.

According to UK Meteorological Office's Julian Heming:

"It's very dangerous to explain Rita or Katrina through global warming, because we have always had strong hurricanes in the USA - the strongest one on record dates back to 1935."

Out short historical records of hurricanes do show a cycle that brings stronger storms every few decades. We are in the peak of one of those cycles, but that doesn't mean that global warming is to blame.

However, as our climate warms considerably over the coming decades we may see hurricanes affected. Warm waters in the ocean give hurricanes their massive strength. So it stands to reason that warmer waters could affect the power of these storms. There just isn't enough scientific evidence yet to make certain conclusions.

posted on Thu, 10/27/2005 - 9:30am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

"Paleotempestologists"--scientists who study storms of the past--are poring over plantation diaries and ships' logs, newspaper clippings and history books, trying to learn more about the Atlantic weather cycle that leads to active hurricane seasons.

Eventually, they hope to have enough data to try to answer questions about whether or not global warming has a hand in the weather we're seeing lately, or if we're just in an active phase of a normal cycle.

posted on Thu, 10/27/2005 - 12:36pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

This article from Discover magazine interviews an experienced meteorologist who argues that recent hurricane patterns fit the cycle theory better than they fit the global warming theory. (The interview was conducted before the 2005 hurricane season.) Bryan is right -- we just don't know enough right now to say.

posted on Thu, 10/27/2005 - 11:30am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

A single year doesn't prove or disprove the impact of global warming on hurricane formation, intensity, or frequency.

But if you're interested in the scientific debate on the topic, check out this New York Times article on hurricanes and global warming ("Will warming lead to a rise in hurricanes?"). It begins:

"When people worry about the effects of global warming, they worry more about hurricanes than anything else. In surveys, almost three-quarters of Americans say there will be more and stronger hurricanes in a warming world. By contrast, fewer than one-quarter worry about increased coastal flooding.

But as far as the scientific consensus is concerned, people have things just about backward.

There is no doubt that as the world warms, seas will rise, increasing the flood risk, simply because warmer water occupies more space. (And if the Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets melt, the rise will be far greater.)

It seems similarly logical that as the world warms, hurricanes will be more frequent or more powerful or both. After all, they draw their strength from warm ocean waters. But while many scientists hold this view, there is far less consensus, in part because of new findings on other factors that may work against stronger, more frequent storms."

Oh...and while you're reading it, remember that just over 50% of Americans live within 50 miles of the coast.

posted on Tue, 05/29/2007 - 2:48pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

you did pretty good research but you could have included something about how many deaths there were.\r\n

posted on Wed, 11/02/2005 - 9:56am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The official death toll now stands at 1,302.

posted on Wed, 11/02/2005 - 3:13pm
Zak's picture
Zak says:

This is something I didn't even know about. It's really cool. It also helped me in my project.

posted on Wed, 11/09/2005 - 5:02pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

FEMA has issued maps of the Gulf Coast, based on damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and other storms over the last 20 years, that show the new (and expanded) federally defined flood zones. FEMA has also issued new, more conservative building standards for storm-ravaged areas, requiring that flood zones be built on stronger foundations or raised on stilts.

But the FEMA building guidelines don't go into effect until the flood maps are finalized, and that won't be for another year. In the interim period, while many people are rebuilding, local governments are struggling with the building requirements: Should they allow people to rebuild according to the existing maps? Require some elevation or strengthening, and expand the flood zones somewhat, but not as much as FEMA is recommending? Follow the FEMA recommendations in their entirety?

Once the maps are finalized, local governments that haven't resolved the issue will be forced to follow the FEMA guidelines, since the agency can ban people from the flood insurance program if they don't respect the official maps. But people who rebuild now in areas that do not comply with the new proposals will still be eligible for flood insurance if construction predates the adoption of the FEMA mandates by their local governments.

According to the New York Times:

"Raising a new house off the ground to comply with the proposed FEMA standards would cost $2,000 to $30,000 depending on the value of the house and the type of foundation required to meet the potential flood intensity. The work could be as simple as an elevated foundation or as complex as reinforced, deep-set structural columns that would support a house entirely on tall stilts. How high the house would be off the ground would depend on its location, but the heights would be from a few feet to 20 feet, with more typical range being 8 to 14 feet...."

It's a big cost, especially for people who've already lost everything. But these are areas that are likely to flood again, and many people are rebuilding with FEMA and federal flood insurance dollars.

What do you think? Should people be allowed to rebuild at all in these areas? If so, should they be allowed to rebuild the area as it was? Or should homes be rebuilt, at a higher price, with more robust foundations and on structures that raise them above the ground?

posted on Tue, 12/13/2005 - 10:33am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

I just finished a fascinating article ("Letter from New Orleans: The Lost Year," by Dan Baum) in the August 21 issue of The New Yorker. It details just a few of the challenges New Orleanians face as they rebuild their city. But it also addresses a few misconceptions, especially about the Lower Ninth Ward.

“Only fourteen thousand people lived in the Lower Ninth Ward at the time of Katrina—fewer than three percent of the city’s population—but the neighborhood instantly assumed an importance out of all proportion to its size. Depending on who was talking, the two sodden square miles represented either the indolence, poverty, and crime that Katrina had given the city a chance to expunge or the irreplaceable taproot of African-American New Orleans. The Lower Ninth Ward became, in the aftermath of Katrina, a vortex of overwrought emotion and intemperate rhetoric, a stand-in for conflicting visions of the city’s future.”

I followed all the news in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and I saw hundreds of photos and videos of stunned people wading through the floodwaters or stranded on rooftops. And, like many others, I'm sure, I thought that the Lower Ninth Ward was particularly hard hit because it's particularly low-lying. Not so!

“The Lower Ninth Ward does not lie particularly low. Large portions of New Orleans—including some wealthy areas near Lake Pontchartrain—sit four or more feet below sea level, while almost all the Lower Nine sits within a foot and a half of sea level, and parts of it are a couple of feet above. What doomed it during Katrina was its position near the junction of the Industrial Canal and another canal, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or Mr. Go, which extends eastward from the city. The two waterways funneled Katrina’s surge into a wedge that burst the Industrial Canal’s levee with a sound like cannon fire early on the morning of August 29th. The violence was tremendous. A huge wave scraped half a square mile of houses off their foundations and ground them to rubble. A red iron barge the size of an airplane hangar rode through the breach and landed on top of a school bus. Not a house in the Lower Nine was spared; most of those which didn’t collapse or slide off their foundations flooded to their rooflines. Their residents—among the least able to evacuate, for want of cars and money—drowned in the oily brown floodwaters or hacked holes through attic ceilings and sat on scalding tar-paper roofs for days, waiting to be rescued.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, a few were optimistic. After all, 1/3 of the world's population lives in coastal areas, many of them in delta cities that are expected to experience at least some flooding as climate changes and sea level rises. Like the Netherlands, with its system of levees (built after a 1953 hurricane that killed hundreds), New Orleans could be an example of how to rebuild, smarter and better, after a devastating flood. (More on how the system in the Netherlands works, and how their system may not be adequate, either...)

Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin, Jr., formed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission to develop a recovery plan. One proposal before the group suggested making New Orleans smaller. The idea made sense: New Orleans’ population was shrinking before the storm, and planners estimated that the post-Katrina population would be half of the pre-storm one. However, the areas that would become parks and green space were primarily black neighborhoods—including the Lower Ninth Ward.

“Because of its history of black homeownership, the Lower Ninth Ward is a neighborhood of deep roots. Many black New Orleanians either have lived there at some point or grew up visiting relatives there. Suggestions that it be forsaken sounded to many like a pretext for getting rid of the city’s black majority.”

In the months after Katrina, with no policies decided and no federal reconstruction money yet available, the media reported on every proposal before the commission. And with emotions running high, even good proposals got lost in the tempest.

“Janet Howard runs a nonprofit group called the Bureau of Government Research, which issues critiques of New Orleans’ waste and inefficiency. A former Wall Street lawyer with a vinegary, patrician disdain for pomposity, she often criticized the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, but she was a strong proponent of shrinking the footprint. In a borrowed downtown computer-company office that she’d been using since her own office flooded, she explained to me how the city could contract without destroying neighborhood integrity, through land swaps. She sketched it for me on a legal pad, showing how those in, say, the utterly destroyed parts of the Lower Nine who wanted to return could swap with people who owned lots in the less damaged part and didn’t want to return. The result: a smaller, but intact, Lower Nine neighborhood.”

So planners waited for new FEMA maps, which would show what parts of the city the federal government would insure against floods. In theory, the maps would make certain areas uninsurable—unbuildable—and cut through some of the emotion and politics.

“Sean Riley, a member of Governor Blanco’s statewide recovery authority, told me that New Orleans’ obsession with neighborhoods was dangerous in the context of the bigger hurricanes predicted by atmospheric scientists. ‘When you say “neighborhood,” it’s become politically and racially charged,’ he said. … ‘We should talk about blocks and elevations, not neighborhoods, so we can talk about people rebuilding out of harm’s way. … ‘We’re not going to allow rebuilding where it’s unsafe. We know what the FEMA maps are going to say. They will make some decisions. Certain places are obviously unsafe to build.’”

But the FEMA maps, in the end, were unexpected and disappointing. Instead of prohibiting building in low-lying areas, the floodplain elevations were basically unchanged. The only new rule was that some builders would have to raise new houses by three feet—in areas where the water had run over the rooftops. The lack of agreement between agencies and an unwillingness to wade into the emotional fray has, by default, encouraged people in the lowest-lying and poorest neighborhoods to stay put and fix up their homes.

All is perhaps not lost, though:

“Elizabeth English studies the effects of hurricanes on buildings, at the Hurricane center of Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge. ‘You need to think about how architecture helps shape culture,’ she said, when I met her at a back-yard dinner party in Baton Rouge. English, who is fifty-two and slight, has the intensity of someone whose career has met its most significant challenge. She is trying to save an architectural feature that is as emblematic of New Orleans as crayfish étouffée: the shotgun house. The shotgun—sometimes four to six times as long as it is wide—catches stray breezes and allows them to pass through every room. The house is too narrow to have a hall, so the rooms are lined up one behind the other. The original plantations on the Mississippi River oxbow that later cradled New Orleans were long, thin strips, starting at the river and running north, toward the lake. ‘People grow accustomed to the geometry in which they live,’ English said. ‘When it came to laying out lots in New Orleans, they naturally laid them out long and narrow. That led to the long and narrow shotguns.’ The shotguns, in turn, helped develop the close-knit neighborhoods that New Orleanians love. A shotgun’s salient feature is its lack of privacy. Getting from the front room to the kitchen, which is usually in the back, means walking through everybody else’s room or around the outside. On the narrow lots, shotguns sit close together, so neighbors are also on top of each other. ‘That communal culture everybody talks about in New Orleans, that warmth, all that life on the street, you could say that originates with the need for every plantation to have a little piece of riverfront,’ English said. The shotguns are built of old-growth swamp cypress that resists mold, termites, and rot. ‘And they were built to flood.’ The homes were designed to drain water and dry quickly. From English’s informal survey of the Lower Nine, it looked as though at least half of the houses on many blocks were shotguns. Most were in good structural shape, even those which had floated away. They needed new Sheetrock and wiring but little else, and it wouldn’t cost much, she said, to jack them up in anticipation of future floods. ‘You just put more cinder blocks under them.’ A do-it-yourself owner could restore a shotgun for not much more than the amount—twenty-six thousand dollars—in reconstruction assistance that FEMA was promising to homeowners who lacked insurance. ‘There was this message coming out of the commission that you’d be foolish to invest in your flooded home,’ English said. ‘But that’s just not true.’”

But parts of New Orleans are sinking into the mud of the Mississippi Delta by an inch a year, and some parts of the levee system are now three feet (!) lower than their designers intended. Clearly, some better leadership and public planning guided by science are needed to prevent another disaster in the future...

posted on Tue, 09/05/2006 - 3:25pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Google Earth will allow you to see before and after pictures of areas affected by Hurricane Katrina using images from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The images were gathered using NASA's mapping system EAARL (Experimental Advanced Airborne Research Lidar).

To see the NASA pictures on Google Earth, first download Google Earth to your computer. Next open and follow the instructions.

posted on Mon, 02/06/2006 - 8:57am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Popular Mechanics has an article on The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina. It explains how things worked (and sometimes didn't), and makes suggestions for the future. It also debunks some widespread misconceptions about the disaster.

posted on Fri, 02/17/2006 - 2:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i think that people should rebuild the cities that got hit before they start talking about a new season\r\n

posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 1:52pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

??? Hurricane season comes every year, whether we're ready for it or not. It runs from June 1 through November 30.

posted on Wed, 08/02/2006 - 1:15pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

If you read you know and obviously your read but i think that they definately will rebuild because new orleans is the heartr of louisiana and economically louisiana wouldn't be the same

posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 7:37am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Does anybody know how much money it will cost to rebuild New Orleans and if they are going to do it?

posted on Wed, 03/29/2006 - 4:25pm
fernando's picture
fernando says:

yea hurricane kartrina was the biggest hurricane in the US.And in the eye their is no wind and you would think that it is done but it is not.

posted on Tue, 05/16/2006 - 6:23pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Just in time for the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season, EARTH&SKY radio has done a cool series about the possible link between hurricane activity and global warming. (Scientist Kerry Emanuel says, "I think the idea that it's part of a natural cycle is dead.") See photos, read the interview, or listen to the podcasts.

posted on Fri, 05/19/2006 - 11:05am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Sat, 05/20/2006 - 9:11am
Jenny's picture
Jenny says:

Pretty bad storm

posted on Sat, 05/20/2006 - 9:12am
Katy's picture
Katy says:

i was in huriicane katrina. i lost 5 loved ones. i am helping re-build some of the neighborhoods. it is looking great here. im living in utah with my aunt and unlce now. i hope we can get back to our original neighborhoods some time soon. i loved my family, now they are gone. my neighbor, little D, died from drowning. he weighed 23 lbs. he blew into a tree, and got washed under. i miss him, and eveyone. it was a godd/bad experience.

posted on Thu, 09/14/2006 - 9:35pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

i think katrina did a big damage and destroyed many lives and many home from what people had. i wish i could do something to help.

posted on Wed, 10/18/2006 - 9:22am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

we are scwering up our earth and its all we have we have nobody 2 blame but our selvs

posted on Sun, 11/12/2006 - 2:36pm
tiger morton juvinille detenstion center's picture
tiger morton juvinille detenstion center says:

yea i think we are just killing our selves!

posted on Thu, 12/07/2006 - 8:11am
lisa's picture
lisa says:

i come from australia and im doing an assessment task on hurricane katrina for science. man it sounds bad. it made the news here i can remember. over here we dont get hurricanes. we get tornadoes up north but thats about it. the closest thing ive seen to a hurricane is a willy-willy.
i was looking at pictures of new orleans and whoa! that flooding was bad as!! worst lot of flooding ive ever seen.
well the info up the top is very helpful. thanks :)

posted on Mon, 03/05/2007 - 12:03am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this is such a good film and i love to learn about the weather!!!

it was sad to hear on the news how many peoples houses were distroyed.

posted on Fri, 03/09/2007 - 8:38am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This website rules

posted on Fri, 03/09/2007 - 1:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

how storng wat number was katrrina ????

posted on Tue, 09/18/2007 - 1:16pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

this site will be perfect for my project

posted on Wed, 10/10/2007 - 6:24am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This website has helped me so much with my science fair project on hurricanes. Thanks

posted on Fri, 12/28/2007 - 9:21pm
iowaboy's picture
iowaboy says:

i did see the film that the science museum had about hurricane katrina. it still saddens and angers me whenever i think about the hurricane and how it ravaged new orleans. all government agencies- federal, state, and local- failed the people.
i visited new orleans in 2002, and i loved it there, i had such a nice time that i called it a 'benchmark' in my life. i left behind many of my cares about the world in the french quarter. i cared a little more since i had been there.
it led to me watching the abc news show 'nightline' more often, which gave me indelible images of the tragedy. there was also a documentary about the hurricane called 'trouble the water' and was just as memorable.
the 2 images i will remember best? the man on top of his flooded home waving a red flag, and two girls next to him holding up a sign that said 'help us'. and the other? the scene from the squalor that was the convention center where somebody asked 'who's in charge here?' and all the people the yelled back 'NO ONE!' neither one needed explanation.

posted on Wed, 11/12/2008 - 9:49am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

iowaboy, you might be interested in Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America," by John M. Barry.

The Library Journal review reads,

"In the spring of 1927, America witnessed perhaps its greatest natural disaster: a flood that profoundly changed race relations, government, and society in the Mississippi River valley region. Barry presents here a fascinating social history of the effects of the massive flood. More than 30 feet of water stood over land inhabited by nearly one million people. Almost 300,000 African Americans were forced to live in refugee camps for months. Many people, both black and white, left the land and never returned. Using an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, Barry clearly traces and analyzes how the changes produced by the flood in the lower South came into conflict and ultimately destroyed the old planter aristocracy, accelerated black migration to the North, and foreshadowed federal government intervention in the region's social and economic life during the New Deal. His well-written work supplants Pete Daniel's Deep'n as It Come: The 1927 Mississippi Flood (1977) as the standard work on the subject."

Myself, I couldn't put it down. Check it out.

posted on Wed, 11/12/2008 - 10:43am
iowaboy's picture
iowaboy says:

thank you, i have wrote down these 2 titles. it sounds a lot like a history book so it should interest me greatly.

i know many references were made to the 1927 flood after the 2005 hurricane/flood, i found online articles (and features on shows like 'nightline') that mentioned how the earlier flood made a mark in pop culture, through the randy newman song 'louisiana 1927'.

a british woman said her dad sang her that song, so she immediately thought of it when hearing about katrina.

the history of how katrina will affect america is likely still being written, though its impact will likely be comparable.

posted on Wed, 11/12/2008 - 1:58pm
sh, secret's picture
sh, secret says:

this website was not helpful because i was looking for the scientific impact on katrina and i really need it for my science project.

posted on Thu, 12/03/2009 - 9:33pm

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