This year’s hurricane season was forceful and devastating. Within the span of a few weeks, Irma pummeled the Caribbean islands and Florida, Harvey wreaked havoc in Texas and Louisiana and, before it was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, Ophelia traveled farther east than all other Category 3 Atlantic hurricanes on record.
Now, as Sarah Gibbens reports for National Geographic, NASA has created an arresting time lapse of the hurricanes and storms that swirled across the globe in 2017, which could help scienitsts better understand the development of these catastrophic events.
Between July 31 and November 1, NASA satellites tracked aerosol particles—tiny specks of sea salt, dust and smoke suspended in the air—and combined that data with supercomputer simulations developed by the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
When hurricanes form, sea salt particles get swept up by strong winds and are incorporated into the storm, NASA explains on its website. The new visualization vividly renders this process. First, it shows Harvey fomenting off the coast of South America, with salt particles—represented by glowing blue wisps—quickly concentrating into the hurricane’s signature spiral.
Irma formed off the coast of Africa, and the visualization shows dust from the Sahara spinning into the hurricane. By the time it reaches North America, the dust is washed out of the storm with the rain, which aligns with they way tropical storms typically evolve.
But Ophelia was different; as NASA’s website explains the storm “traveled to the east picking up dust from the Sahara and smoke from large fires in Portugal. Retaining its tropical storm state farther northward than any system in the Atlantic, Ophelia carried the smoke and dust into Ireland and the UK.”
Indeed, NASA’s visualization reveals just how far aerosol particles can travel. Smoke from wildfires in the Pacific Northwest can be seen getting swept up in weather systems and carried to Europe. Dust from the Sahara makes it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Though scientists understand a good deal about the atmospheric conditions that lead to hurricane formation, simulations can help researchers separate adverse weather systems into their component parts—and gain further insight into how these parts contribute to powerful hurricanes and storms.