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Kinds of Storms and five Most Destructive Storms

Thomas George

storm (from Proto-Germanic *sturmaz “noise, tumult”) is any disturbed state of an astronomical body’s atmosphere, especially affecting its surface, and strongly implying severe weather. It may be marked by strong wind, thunder and lightning (a thunderstorm), heavy precipitation, such as ice (ice storm), or wind transporting some substance through the atmosphere (as in a dust storm, snowstorm, hailstorm, etc).

Storms are created when a center of low pressure develops, with a system of high pressure surrounding it. This combination of opposing forces can create winds and result in the formation of storm clouds, such as the cumulonimbus. Small, localized areas of low pressure can form from hot air rising off hot ground, resulting in smaller disturbances such as dust devils and whirlwinds.

Storms are disturbances of the atmosphere, accompanied by strong winds and often by some form of precipitation such as rain or snow. Violent storms include the following:

  • Blizzard – a severe snowstorm accompanied by strong winds with a minimum speed of 35miles per hour combined with either falling snow or snow on the ground to reduce visibilities to ¼ miles for at least 3 hours.
  • Dust Storm – also known as sandstorm is a common phenomenon in dry regions. It is characterized by high winds which carry great clouds of dust, usually in an area that has undergone a long period of drought. Dust storm cause soil loss from the dry lands and they can remove organic matter and the nutrient-rich lightest particles, thereby affecting the agricultural productivity in that region.
  • Hurricane – a tropical cyclone (wind that rotates round a calm central area) that originates over the warmer areas. The cyclone is accompanied by thunderstorms and extremely high winds (74 mph) and heavy rains that often inflict extensive damage in coastal areas.
  • Ice Storm – is a type of winter storm characterized by freezing rain or freezing drizzle causes a glaze of ice on all exposed objects. It happens when a warm cloud rains above a layer of colder air. This lowers the temperature of the droplets to below zero; however it remains in liquid form. The super cooled droplets freeze into ice on impact when they fall onto a surface.
  • Squall – is a sudden, sharp increase in wind speed (18mph – 25mph) that is usually associated with brief (at least 1 minute) and heavy precipitation. This usually occurs in a squall line.
  • Thunderstorm or Electric Storm – is a form of weather that is characterized by severe storm accompanied by lightning and thunder, strong gusty winds, heavy rain, and occasionally hail. Sometimes thunderstorms produce tornadoes and waterspouts (a tornado or lesser whirlwind occurring over water and resulting in funnel-shape of rotating cloud-filled wind usually extending from the cumulus cloud down to a cloud of spray torn up by the whirling wind from the surface of an ocean.
  • Tornado – a violent, whirling storm of small size, it is usually very destructive. Tornado is formed when huge masses of clouds moving in different directions meet. The air starts to spin in a spiral and a funnel of twisting air, low pressure inside the funnel sucks up anything it touches. It can travel across land at very high speeds and its roaring noise is heard up to 40km away.
  • Typhoon – is a tropical cyclone that is similar to a hurricane, except that it occurs over the western Pacific Ocean and its shores.

Sto­rms­ are one of those incredible forces of nature that can change life in a single instant, but just how do we measure how destructive a storm is? Is it by the number of lives lost? Is it having lasting impact on a population? What are the financial costs of the d­estruction? Most violent storms produce a terrible and terrifying combination of all three — the overall effects often leave people stunned and devastated that so much chaos could happen on the whim of weather.

All circling weather patterns with low-pressure centers technically are called cyclones. So hurricanes and tornadoes fall under the cyclone designation, but the term can be used to denote anything in the category that fits the definition. For example, middle-latitude (or midlatitudecyclones, huge weather systems of varying strengths, are also in this category.

The term “hurricane” is used for a storm that begins east of the International Date Line. This type of storm is called a typhoon if it’s spawned to the west. If you’re in the Indian Ocean, you call this same storm a cyclone.

Five Most Destructive Storms

1. Bhola Cyclone

A y­ear before Bangladesh would become an independent nation by seceding from­ Pakistan, it was struck by a raging cyclone. The cyclone caused chaos on the low-lying coastal delta, and according to some, was a contributing factor in the fight for independence.

Although cyclones do not necessarily occur more often in and around Bangladesh, when cyclones strike they cause immense devastation because of the country’s topography. The 1970 storm, nicknamed the Bhola Cyclone, proved to be one of the greatest natural disasters in recorded history, even though it only made landfall as a Category 3 storm. Fatality estimates range from 300,000 to one million people, although most estimates put the tally at 500,000 people.

2. The Great Hurricane of 1780

No hurricane in the Atlantic had even come close to matchi­ng the death toll from this massive storm until 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America. That hurricane took the lives of 11,000 to 18,000 people, mostly from Nicaragua and Honduras.

However, the Great Hurricane of 1780 still overshoots that devastating statistic. An estimated 22,000 people perished between October 10 and October 16 in the eastern Caribbean, mainly in the Lesser Antilles, with the heaviest losses on the islands of Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados. Beyond these casualties, it’s estimated that thousands of sailors, mostly French and British, who were campaigning in the region also perished in the storm when the dramatic weather plowed into their vessels [source: NOAA].

3. The Galveston Storm

On Sept. 8, 1900, Galveston, Texas, braved a storm of biblical proportions. The island city, located ­just off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico, had a population of about 37,000 people an­d bright economic prospects before that fateful day. But on September 9, the city had a population of about 30,000 and millions of dollars in damage [source: The 1900 Storm].

So what brought this turn of events to the people of Galveston? A hurricane — estimated to be Category 4 strength — slammed into the unprotected, low-lying island, and the destruction it brought with it was immense. Generally, researchers estimated the Galveston storm’s death tolls to be between 8,000 and 10,000 people (wider estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000 people). However, remains were still washing ashore in February of the following year. To this day, it’s the deadliest natural disaster to ever strike U.S. territory.

The hurricane’s 225 kilometer-per-hour (140-mile-per-hour) winds and 4.5-meter-high (15-foot-high) storm surge demolished 3,600 buildings [source: The 1900 Storm]. The whole island was submerged, and when the waters finally receded, 12 city blocks (nearly three-quarters of the city) were washed away [source: Zarrella]. In the intervening hours, people struggled to stay alive, clinging to anything they could find above water.

After the hurricane and as the town moved to rebuild, efforts were made to provide some protect­ion in the event of a similar future disaster. The town propped up buildings — in some cases as high as five meters (17 feet) above their original elevation — and the whole grade of the island was raised. The town also constructed a sea wall five meters (17 feet) high and 16 kilometers (10 miles) long, which thankfully helped protect the city in 1961, when another hurricane hit.

4. Hurricane Katrina

Althou­gh the death t­oll from this furious storm wasn’t a record-breaker, Hur­ricane Katrina’s financial impact was incomparable. Let’s take a look at the storm that changed New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region forever.

In August 2005, trouble began brewing in the Atlantic. The storm first began to form in the vicinity of the Bahamas and proceeded to travel across the southern end of the Florida peninsula. The hurricane was relatively tame during its journey in Florida, compared to what was coming. Upon returning to open waters, Katrina strengthened with a vengeance and grew into a Category 5 hurricane. In the 18 hours prior to landfall, it mellowed into a Category 3 storm.

But what remained remarkable about Katrina was its enormous size. On August 27, Katrina’s expanse almost doubled, with tropical storm-force winds felt 161 nautical miles from the eye of the storm in every direction. When it slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, Katrina hovered in the upper reaches of a Category 3 storm, and the eye of the hurricane passed only 23 miles (37 kilometers) from downtown New Orleans [source: Knabb].

Katrina’s storm surge towered almost 30 feet in some places, and its effects were registered throughout the Gulf Coast region. The combination of extreme storm surges and time-weakened levees caused New Orleans and the surrounding communities to sustain severe flooding. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater — up to 20 feet (6 meters) in some places — and it would be 43 days, in part because Hurricane Ritashowed up about a month later, before the last of the deluge could recede [source: Knabb].

Eventually, the world heard of Katrina’s lethal results. Hurricane Katrina spawned 43 tornadoes that traveled across the southeastern United States. The storm directly caused the deaths of an estimated 1,500 people in four states — the most fatalities occurred in Louisiana. Thousands of homes were destroyed and damaged. In Louisiana and Mississippi, the storm surge was so severe in some places that it annihilated entire coastal communities. The oil rigs and other facilities in the region that were hit spilled millions of gallons of oil. The financial toll is nearly incalculable because of its complexity — lost jobs, missed revenue opportunities and destroyed businesses all factor among the financial losses. Preliminary damage costs (mainly figured through insured losses) were estimated to be about $81 billion [source: Knabb]. Hurricane Katrina’s total financial impact was later estimated at approximately $200 billion, and some suspect that number will hit the $300 billion mark when the final totals are released [source: Galvin].

5. Tri-State Tornado

Many tornadoes leave death, injury and destruction in their wake, but one tornado stands in ­a class by itself. On March 18, 1925, the Tri-State Tornado struck, and it still remains the deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

Sweeping out from ­southeastern Missouri, the Tri-State Tornado careened clear across the southern tip of Illinois before finally dissipating in the lower regions of Indiana. What’s remarkable is that these three locales are 352 kilometers (219 miles) apart, and the tornado traveled this distance in just three and a half hours [source: SEMP].

To really understand how impressive the Tri-State Tornado was, let’s compare it to an average tornado. Typically, tornadoes travel about 45 kilometers (30 miles) per hour and are between 150 to 600 meters (500 to 2,000 feet) wide. Generous estimates suggest they travel an average of 10 kilometers (6 miles) before dissipating [source: Tarbuck]. The Tri-State Tornado, on the other hand, had an average speed of 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour and a top speed of 117 kilometers (73 miles) per hour. It traveled more than 36 times an average tornado’s usual distance, and some eyewitnesses said its path was nearly a mile wide [source: NOAA].

Scientists today wonder if the Tri-State Tornado was actually a family of tornadoes created from a massive supercell storm, which could account for the extremity of its activity. The central argument against this theory stems from the path of the tornado, which would have been very unusual had it been caused by multiple twisters. For 183 of the 219 miles, it traveled to the same degree along a perfectly straight vector [source: NOAA].

All told, the EF5 storm killed 695 people. Of that total, 234 lived in the town of ­Murphysboro — sadly setting the record for the most fatalities incurred by a tornado in a single city in U.S. history. In total, 2,027 people sustained injuries from the tornado’s passage, and 15,000 homes were destroyed. Some towns were completely obliterated [source: SEMP].

The U.S­ Central plains — nicknamed Tornado Alley — have the highest frequency of tornadoes in the world [source: Tarbuck].

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