No question, 2017’s hurricane season has been one for the record books. A rapid succession of devastating tropical cyclones have swept through the Caribbean. And each of the major hurricanes — those Category 4 and 5 — brought record conditions to at least some of the sites they ravaged. Maria, the latest, may have brought the highest one-hour deluge in U.S. history.
Just a few weeks earlier, Harvey set a different, but equally impressive, record. That massive storm hovered over parts of Texas for many days. In Jefferson County, it dropped as much as 164 centimeters (64.6 inches) of rain. The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Lake Charles, La., just released this newly finalized total. The previous record rainfall in any one U.S. site had been 52 inches. That was during a flood-producing rainstorm in Hawaii in 1950.
Then, there was Irma. It ravaged several tropical islands and large parts of western Florida. The hurricane maintained its peak Category 5 wind speeds for 37 hours, longer than any other known storm.
A week later, Maria blew in. And it laid siege to some of the same Caribbean islands just hammered by Irma. Maria reached top hurricane strength — Category 5 — as it trekked through the Virgin Islands. And it maintained this intensity until right before making landfall in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, September 20. It was there that the rains may have logged yet a new record.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Its 3.6 million inhabitants are American citizens. After having largely dodged the wrath of Harvey and Irma, Puerto Rico took a direct hit from Maria. The storm’s eyewall, where the winds are fastest, roared ashore near the island of Vieques.
Downgraded to Category 4, the hurricane still packed sustained winds of 209 kilometers (130 miles) per hour. The winds battered the landscape. But the storm’s fury unleashed more than just wind. Heavy rains came down fast and furiously. The water flooded neighborhoods. It turned streets into rivers.
Sites across Puerto Rico saw 25 to 51 centimeters (10 to 20 inches) of rain. Some local totals topped almost a meter (3 feet). If true, this would crush the current one-hour nationwide rainfall record — and come close to breaking a world record.
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It is impossible, however, to know for sure how accurate these rainfall measurements were.
An automated rain gauge in the town of Caguas, Puerto Rico, reported an astonishing 31.4 centimeters (12.4 inches) of rain in just 44 minutes. Over the course of a full hour, 34.1 centimeters (13.4 inches) fell. Or did it?
There’s no doubt that huge torrents of rain came down — and fast. But when the numbers start getting up into record territory, it’s easy to “trick” a rain gauge. So finding reliable data for very short time scales is very hard.
That’s why most meteorologists resort to an “unofficial” U.S. estimate for the greatest one-hour rain total. It was set on a plantation in Kauai, Hawaii, on January 24, 1956. There, 30.5 centimeters (1 foot) of rain supposedly fell. The person taking those numbers said the gauge was overflowing, according to the weather forecasting website Weather Underground. That makes it tough to know how reliable this number is. But it certainly looks as though last week’s rain in Puerto Rico smashed the previous record.
That said, it’s unlikely that Puerto Rico's potential record-setter will ever be confirmed. And there are three reasons for that.
The first has to do with the type of rain gauge used. Most automated NWS reporting stations are a “tipping bucket” type. This means that when enough rain falls to fill a bucket, the water’s weight causes it to tip. The water then dumps out and the machine registers a “tick.” The system counts how many ticks occurred and converts that to a rainfall total.
This seems simple enough. But when the rain comes down fast enough, the gauge has to do a lot of work. It tips back and forth and back again. It keeps repeating, and, much like a pendulum, the bucket starts to develop a rhythm. This type of rhythm, in which an object oscillates back and forth about a central point, is known as harmonic motion. There is a restoring force that tends to try to bring that object back to its central relaxed position.
This harmonic motion makes it easier for the bucket to flip — even when it’s not full. That can result in an exaggerated total.
This is hardly the first time the National Weather Service has been challenged to confirm what seems to be an absurdly high rainfall total. Generally, officials will try to correlate reported totals with amounts estimated by Doppler radar. This type of radar can track both the intensity of rains and the direction the raindrops are moving. Such radar can be used to derive wind speeds inside of a cloud. In Puerto Rico, however, Maria’s winds destroyed the radar before its rainfall tally was complete.
The radar died when the winds got too high. Most NWS radar domes have been built to withstand winds up to 217 kilometers (135 miles) per hour. But Maria was stronger than that. Just before the last frame of data had been transmitted, the radar estimated incoming gusts of 241 kilometers (150 miles) per hour!
The radar's destruction comes as no surprise. After all, it sat atop the peak of a hill several hundred meters (yards) tall. There was nothing to block the unobstructed gusts from howling in. The system’s protective dome peeled away. Pounding rains then destroyed the sensitive electronics inside. The radar had previously stood for 21 years.
The radar's loss left the hurricane forecasters in a tricky spot during the storm. They had to get information out. With no information coming in, they were forced to turn to a backup plan. Ground-based real-time data was gone, so they consulted a brand-new weather satellite known as GOES-16. This allowed them to track from space the individual thunderstorm cells (lone thunderstorms within a larger cluster of rain) and rain bands (the spiraling arms of showers that swing around and into the eye).
Even though there was no way to know what was going on beneath the clouds, the satellite could study the cloud tops. Meteorologists called up a computer model that uses a “tracking algorithm.” It's a type of special math formula. Certain weather models use this algorithm to make sense of what a satellite is reporting. With that computer model, meteorologists were able to estimate wind speeds, based on the observed motions of the thunderstorms’ tops.
Other satellites also could play a role in verifying Maria’s possible rainfall record. NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement satellite was parked over Maria at the time the report of a possible record came in. This satellite measures infrared radiation — a heat signature — from the cloud tops. That, together with information about the storm’s moisture content, let scientist build a 3D model of the storm. Yes, it’s another computer model. Scientists can use this model to make crude estimates about rainfall rates under storm “towers.” A tower is an exceptionally tall thunderstorm cell that can reach more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) high.
One so-called “hot tower” soared 16.8 kilometers (10.4 miles) into the sky. Such extreme heights point to the presence of an exceptionally powerful storm cell. And that may soon offer some clues to help solve the rainfall-record puzzle.
Wet, wet Puerto Rico
During Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s mountains served as a recipe for disaster.
When water falls on such rugged terrain, it can slosh downhill and collect in valleys. There, it easily forms raging rapids. Water moving so quickly can carry away anything in its path. Vehicles, homes — even people — may be swept away.
At one point during the storm, the entire island of Puerto Rico was under a Flash Flood Warning from the National Weather Service. More than a dozen Flash Flood Warnings were issued at the same time across the island. This is the first time the whole island has been blanketed beneath warnings all at once.
Meteorologist Eric Holthaus works for the news organization Grist. He noted on Twitter that Maria’s rains swelled the Rio Grande de Loiza to a flow rate that was 200 times this river’s typical value! He shared this statistic on September 21.
What set the stage for such epic flooding? There was plentiful moisture. The oceans held huge amounts of energy, in the form of heat. Locally calm winds in the upper atmosphere over the tropics also promoted the storm’s growth. If the winds aloft are too strong, they can tear a developing hurricane apart. In the end, Maria’s rainfall over Puerto Rico appeared almost otherworldly.
One reason for this has to do with what’s known as orographics. Essentially, this refers to how the change in topography — the surface height of the land — affects weather. When air is forced uphill, the change in height makes it tougher for the air to hold water. To lighten its load, the air releases all of its excess water. This makes torrential downpours common in the mountainous tropics.
In the end, what was the most water that fell from the sky over any Puerto Rican site during the storm? Up to 99 centimeters (39 inches). That's the best estimate. It's also a dramatic total. It would take roughly 24,000 years for this same amount of rain to fall on Coya Sur in the Atacama Desert of Chile. One of the driest places on Earth, it averages less than a millimeter (0.04 inch) of precipitation each year. (This figure comes from a 2006 paper in the International Journal of Climatology).
Already, Category 5 hurricanes have made landfalls in the Atlantic six times in 2017. These landfalls were made by three different hurricanes (one hurricane can move over land multiple times). The year’s hurricane season doesn’t officially end until November 30. But weather models focusing on longer-range projections hint that the Atlantic will become temporarily quiet. That means hurricane activity should begin a lull lasting at least a couple of weeks.
Puerto Rico appears to be the most populous island ravaged by Maria. Its Office of Emergency Management described the island as “destroyed.” Two days after Maria had departed, Puerto Rico’s officials reported that the entire island was still without electricity. And those officials say they worry that it could take many months to fully repair the island’s crippled electricity-supply system.
But the U.S. territory is not alone. Hurricanes in 2017 stripped some Caribbean islands almost bare of vegetation. In some places, these storms damaged or destroyed nearly all the buildings. Flooding in many areas, notably on Puerto Rico, may last for weeks. And on some islands, people are running short of food, water, fuel, medical supplies and safe housing. In many places, roads remain impassable.
As tropical islands rebuild, the world can only hope that no more storms menace them for now.
algorithm A group of rules or procedures for solving a problem in a series of steps. Algorithms are used in mathematics and in computer programs for figuring out solutions.
Atlantic One of the world’s five oceans, it is second in size only to the Pacific. It separates Europe and Africa to the east from North and South America to the west.
atmosphere The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.
average (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.
Caribbean The name of a sea that runs from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to Mexico and Central American nations in the West, and from the southern coasts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico down to the northern coasts of Venezuela and Brazil. The term is also used to refer to the culture of nations that border on or are islands in the sea.
cell The smallest structural and functional unit or some system.
climatology The study of climate over seasons, decades or millennia. Climate varies over time and this field looks at measuring all aspects of climate and using such data to better understand what factors are behind those changes. Scientists who study climatology are known as climatologists.
cloud A plume of molecules or particles, such as water droplets, that move under the action of an outside force, such as wind, radiation or water currents. (in atmospheric science) A mass of airborne water droplets and ice crystals that travel as a plume, usually high in Earth’s atmosphere. Its movement is driven by winds.
computer model A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.
current A fluid — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction.
cyclone A strong, rotating vortex, usually made of wind. Notable examples include a tornado or hurricane.
electricity A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.
electronics Devices that are powered by electricity but whose properties are controlled by the semiconductors or other circuitry that channel or gate the movement of electric charges.
force Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.
gauge A device to measure the size or volume of something. For instance, tide gauges track the ever-changing height of coastal water levels throughout the day. Or any system or event that can be used to estimate the size or magnitude of something else. (v. to gauge) The act of measuring or estimating the size of something.
hurricane A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.
meteorologist Someone who studies weather and climate events.
model A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.
NASA Short for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Created in 1958, this U.S. agency has become a leader in space research and in stimulating public interest in space exploration. It was through NASA that the United States sent people into orbit and ultimately to the moon. It also has sent research craft to study planets and other celestial objects in our solar system.
online (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.
oscillate To swing back and forth with a steady, uninterrupted rhythm.
precipitation (in meteorology) A term for water falling from the sky. It can be in any form, from rain and sleet to snow or hail.
radar A system for calculating the position, distance or other important characteristic of a distant object. It works by sending out periodic radio waves that bounce off of the object and then measuring how long it takes that bounced signal to return. Radar can detect moving objects, like airplanes. It also can be used to map the shape of land — even land covered by ice.
radiation (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.
satellite A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
terrain The land in a particular area and whatever covers it. The term might refer to anything from a smooth, flat and dry landscape to a mountainous region covered with boulders, bogs and forest cover.
tropical cyclone A strong, rotating storm. These usually form over tropical areas around the equator where the water is warm. Tropical cyclones have strong winds of more than 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour and usually have heavy rain. Large ones in the Atlantic are known as hurricanes. Those in the Pacific are termed typhoons.
tropics The region near Earth’s equator. Temperatures here are generally warm to hot, year-round.
Twitter An online social network that allows users to post messages containing no more than 140 characters.
vegetation Leafy, green plants. The term refers to the collective community of plants in some area. Typically these do not include tall trees, but instead plants that are shrub height or shorter.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
Western (n. the West) An adjective describing nations in Western Europe and North America (from Mexico northward). These nations tend to be fairly industrialized and to share generally similar lifestyles; levels of economic development (incomes); and attitudes toward work, education, social issues and government.
Twitter: E. Holthaus. September 21, 2017. https://twitter.com/EricHolthaus/status/910760542574346240.
Journal: J. Houston. Variability of precipitation in the Atacama Desert: Its causes and hydrological impact. International Journal of Climatology. Vol. 26, December 2006, p. 2181. doi: 10.1002/joc.1359.