Tracking Hurricanes From A Distance - Hurricane Rita

You don't need to be in a hurricane's path to see what's happening!

Elsewhere I mentioned that the vicinity of a major hurricane is no place to be sitting watching the weather with one eye and your home weather station with the other (Hurricane Tracking) . If your outdoor sensors don't fail to high winds and flying debris, you'll almost certainly lose power, and whatever records you may have obtained. In those circumstances it's obviously best to tie everything down, lock up, and move to a safer location.

Because the lack of a home weather station doesn't stop you keeping a very close watch on your nearest hurricane, particularly if you live in North America or the Caribbean. Here's how to do it.

In late September, 2005, Severe Hurricane Rita swept through the Gulf of Mexico. Although it caused a great amount of damage, it wasn't as destructive as Hurricane Katrina earlier in the month. But for a time it was even more powerful.

I spent a few hours, on and off, following Rita's progress from the Florida Straits to her landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border, and I found it so interesting I thought I'd tell you a little about it, and give you a few links so you can do the same next time an interesting hurricane shows up in the area.


The Storm

Major Hurricane Rita first came to notice on September 16th as
an area of disturbed weather north of Puerto Rico. By the 18th
she had developed enough to be identified as Tropical Depression
18, yet another in the busy hurricane season of 2005.

At around 4am on September 24th, Rita came ashore at Sabine Pass
on the Texas - Louisiana border as a major Category 3 hurricane.
For a while, she was the third most intense hurricane since
accurate records have been kept.

The effects of Rita cannot be taken lightly. Even though Rita
weakened and crossed the shoreline away from major population
centers, over a million evacuations disturbed many lives,
including those relocated from New Orleans after Katrina, who
had to move again. Wind damage and flooding from heavy rains
and storm surge were severe and the damage bill will be high,
while the disruption to people's lives and to commerce is
never easily overcome.

Casualties were fortunately very few, the worst being a
terrible bus fire during the evacuation when 24 elderly
people died. New Orleans was flooded again, and the
Florida Keys were awash for a while.

I'm sure everyone's thoughts and sympathy go out to those
whose lives have been disrupted, but things could have been
far, far worse.

For several days the major population area of Houston/Galveston
was a likely landfall. Had this occurred, the damage would have
been far greater, particularly in the low lying islands and
shoreline that form the foundations of Galveston.

What I Saw, and Where I Found It

Rita can almost be considered as the Perfect Hurricane.
She started off slowly, became significant as she passed
almost exactly up the middle of the Florida Straits, then
exploded into a Category 5 hurricane as she made her way
through the Gulf of Mexico, at times almost covering
the Gulf with inflowing and outflowing cloud.
She exhibited most of the features of a full blown hurricane,
and grew and died in a region where satellite, radar and
aerial reconnaissance information is of excellent quality
and is frequently updated.

Add to that the carefully
constructed and informative bulletins of the NHC (National
Hurricane Centre), and the information and comments from
informed participants in the WeatherMatrix forum, and
hurricane watching in the western Atlantic becomes
very very interesting.

I began watching Rita as she approached the Florida Keys
as a Category 1 Hurricane. This was very similar to the
track of Katrina about three weeks earlier, and from the
point of view of a weather observer, the possibilities
were promising.

I won't bore you with a long description of what could be
seen on satellite images as Rita developed and moved across
the Gulf of Mexico, but here are a few highlights ...
  • The explosive growth of the core of the hurricane as
    Rita passed from Category 2 to Category 5. In only
    9 hours the central pressure dropped by 46mb, or
    just under 1.5 inches.

  • The infrared, water vapor and Dvorak infrared (a method
    of estimating wind speed) satellite imagery as they reached maximum values on the scales of severity.
  • The visuals of the hurricane at dawn and dusk, when the
    low sun angles highlighted the swirling cloud bands, the
    well developed eye, and the centres of active convection.
  • The contrast between the cloud bands spiralling in to
    the center and the outflow at higher levels, moving
    equally fast in the opposite direction.
  • The repetition of decline and regrowth as Rita moved
    across the Gulf. At times she looked about to collapse
    as pockets of drier air were encountered. But Rita responded rather like Pacman chomping his way around the maze,
    overcame these setbacks, and moved on with renewed strength.
  • And the image of the eye on Lake Charles and Houston
    radar as Rita neared land.

Now I didn't watch every move that Rita made, although I can
understand how some might. There is no need to sit glassy eyed
in front of a screen, because much of the imagery is saved on
ten part loops which can give a five hour sequence of the
progress and development of a hurricane.

You may like to try this yourself the next time a hurricane
is brewing in the western Atlantic. Here are some of the
most useful links which will help you becomes a well
informed hurricane spectator.

NDBC - National Data Buoy Center - this page shows locations
of buoys and other automatic weather reporting facilities.
Digging down from the maps will provide you with the weather
data from individual buoys in the vicinity of a hurricane.

NHC - National Hurricane Center. The NHC issues forecasts,
public advisories, forecast advisories, discussions and
strike probabilities during the hurricane season. You can
find them, and much more, here;

For archives of recent hurricanes, including Rita, visit this

For specific warnings and forecasts, and radar images and
loops, visit the appropriate NWS pages. This page shows
their location;

A handy guide to hurricane weather is the MESO site. Apart
from links to maps and images, you can also find links to
Brian McNoldy's excellent bulletins on current hurricane and
tropical storm activity. Highly recommended.

And finally, I have found the forum discussion on active
hurricanes at WeatherMatrix to be very interesting and
informative. They cover plenty of other topics as well.
Check them out at;

Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons occur in many other parts
of the world as well, and most national weather organisations
provide similar information to that in the USA. The frequency
of data and the length of image loops is unlikely to be as
comprehensive, but there's always plenty to see.
For more information, visit the pages on Severe Weather , Hurricanes, Hurricane Safety, and, for top quality material on DVD, video, in books or on posters and photos, More Hurricane Resources.

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Last update 05/24/2011