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Tracking hurricanes (and learning about them) online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 8, 2004
(Issue 2241, Computing for Pets)

It has been a hurricane season like almost no other – Florida alone has been ravaged by three hurricanes as this is written, with Ivan expected to make landfall within a few days.

My kids and I were on vacation in New Orleans when Hurricanes Charley and Bonnie gave Florida a one-two punch that was followed mere weeks later by Frances. Now Ivan is headed toward the Panhandle and Jeanne is forming in the Atlantic.

Back home in San Diego, we've not been socked by any hurricanes directly (that happens so rarely as to make a Southern California hurricane a true Event), but remnants of Howard down off Baja California brought unfamiliar (and unwelcome!) humidity to our normally perfect climate.

While in New Orleans, we were inundated with TV and radio reports of the approaching Bonnie and Charley (it wasn't clear at first where it would hit, so everyone was keeping an eye on it). What was made clear by the subsequent evacuation of parts of Florida for Charley (Bonnie petered out once it came ashore in the Florida Panhandle) was that broadcast media remain the most effective way of quickly communicating with the most people in an emergency. The Internet may never replace radio for informing millions of people in a short time about an emergency.

But once back home, it's equally clear that for exploring information about a topic, the 'Net is unrivaled.

Learning about hurricanes

There is a tremendous amount of information – encyclopedic, really – about hurricanes online, much of it on the Web site of the federal government's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From the main page are links to the NOAA's various online hurricane resources, where you can find everything from the latest satellite photos of hurricanes to basic definitions of hurricanes (it is a regional, Caribbean Indian-derived name for what are called typhoons in Japan and the Philippines and cyclones in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean).

A little digging will take you to a page that shows you the different styles of commercial hurricane shutters, as well as illustrated step-by-step instructions for building your own from plywood. There are charts that show the rotations of storm names for the various cyclone regions (hurricane names rotate on a six-year cycle), and a history of when and how storms came to be named and who chooses the names. There is also a list of storm names that have been retired, due to their association with a storm of such magnitude that using them again would be both confusing and disrespectful to those who got walloped (Andrew, for instance).

Some of the most interesting pages are those devoted to a history of the most devastating hurricanes in history – a regular rogue's gallery of bad weather.

For folks who live in hurricane/cyclone/typhoon territory, there are Frequently Asked Questions pages that guide you through preparing your property to survive a hurricane, as well as general FAQs answering questions like "Why don't we try to destroy tropical cyclones by cooling the water with ice bergs?"

And for exploring further afield – i.e., typhoons and cyclones – the NOAA's National Hurricane Center page contains links to the other organizations that track cyclones across the globe.

CNN also has a special section devoted to the 2004 hurricane season. A bit thin in the information department, there are some neat photo galleries here.

More informative is AccuWeather's hurricane center. Here you can find information on all hurricanes (both Atlantic and Northeastern Pacific) from the 2004 season. There are also articles showing how a storm forms, and what its internal structure is like (if we can speak of a weather pattern having "structure").

Of course, there are thousands and thousands of amateur sites run by weather hobbyists – just type "hurricane cyclone typhoon" into any search engine and you'll get back more results than you'll ever be able to sort through – certainly enough to keep you busy through the May-November hurricane season.

As for cyclone season in Australasia and India? Cyclone season in the Southern Hemisphere begins in November, just as its ending in the Northern Hemisphere.

But the above Web sites can help you track those, too.