Year-long summers, clear waters, stunning shorelines, and bustling cities, to live in the Sunshine State is to live in paradise. But there is a catch to this lifestyle: a constant threat of tropical storms. While the rest of the U.S. deals with colder temperatures, Floridians deal with hurricane season. In recent years, this seems like a pretty good trade-off. This year, however, Florida is facing the menacing Hurricane Ian, especially in areas on the Gulf Coast.
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This area is where storms most frequently occur, and the approaching cyclone is looking to do damage. The main component of a hurricane that will cause the most destruction is storm surge. Florida’s Gulf Coast is especially vulnerable to dangerous storm surges compared to any other part of the country.
California worries about fires, Texas worries about tornadoes, Nebraska worries about blizzards, but why does Florida fret about hurricanes?
Florida is located near the tropics, right above the equator. Since the tropics are physically closer to the sun, the water surrounding the state has warm temperatures that cause the water to evaporate much faster than cold water. This warm water causes the air around us to be thick with moisture. Hurricanes thrive in the hot, moist air, which keeps them going. Yet another reason to curse humidity. But this component isn’t enough to create a disastrous hurricane like Ian; it also has to do with wind.
Warm waters create the whispers of a tropical storm, but Florida’s wind patterns turn the murmurs into a full-blown hurricane. As Florida is near the equator, it is the perfect place for tropical winds, known as ‘trade winds,’ to create a constant cycle of warm air. This continuous cycle of warm air, warm water, and cyclical winds makes, for lack of better words, the perfect storm for a hurricane to form.
While Florida’s location makes the whole of the state vulnerable to hurricanes, Florida’s Gulf Coast should watch for the ever-alarming storm surge. Storm surge refers to rising water levels heightened by the storm and what causes the most ruin. As the hurricane travels over the sea, the strong cyclical winds collect water and push it forward. This water buildup is the ‘storm surge,’ and when the surge reaches land, the high tides will almost bulldoze through the area.
Storm surge poses the greatest threat to Florida’s Gulf Coast mainly due to the features of the shoreline and the continental shelf.
Florida has a low-lying coastline and shallow waters, providing little protection for the water being pushed inland by the winds. What exacerbates this threat is the continental shelf of the Gulf Coast, which extends up to 200 miles offshore in some spots. The shelf is wide and shallow and almost acts as a ramp for the water to quickly come onto the land. When winds push the water toward this ‘ramp,’ because it is shallow, there is nowhere for it to go but inland.
With Hurricane Ian, the storm surge will most likely affect the western regions of Florida like Tampa bay and areas along the western Gulf Coast. These areas should be on high alert, especially since the storm may stall over Tampa. A stall in a storm will give the waves more time to become even larger before they head to the shallow shelf.
Tampa bay— Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and other coastal communities–should highly consider evacuation. The region has not experienced a significant threat of storm surge like this in over a century, when water levels reached over six feet, according to Climate Central. Since then, more than 100,000 homes have been built below that level.
The best thing Floridians can do now is prepare. Make an evacuation plan, prepare emergency kits, keep up-to-date with weather reports, and be safe. Refer to Red Cross’s Hurricane Checklist here.
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