Taming the Tempest
Some celebrities achieve such fame that
they are known by a single name—Elvis,
Oprah—and that name will forever be at-
tached to them and requires no explanation.
Katrina is such a name.
In late August 2005, an African tropical
wave moved across the Atlantic, intensified
to a hurricane, and made landfall in Florida.
This hurricane, named Katrina according
to an alphabetical system, sidled away
and regained power, more than doubling in
size to strike again, then again, and again,
along much of the Gulf Coast. The hur-
ricane produced 175-miles-per-hour winds,
spawned 143 tornadoes, caused 1,836 human
deaths (more than 700 are still missing), and
ultimately amassed $110 billion in damage.
Seven years later, swaths of land remain
unusable due to catastrophic damage and
pollution, and regional economies have not
recovered. Normally, hurricane names are
reused by the naming organization, but Ka-
trina’s name has been stricken from the list,
and the name has plummeted in popularity
among baby names. And she wasn’t even the
deadliest: 8,000 people died in 1900 when a
hurricane struck Texas. Fortunately for baby
name books, that storm went unnamed.
Although predictions about a hurricane’s
path have improved substantially in recent
years, forecasting its strength is difficult be-
cause of unknowns concealed in the depths
of the storm. Now Los Alamos atmospheric
scientist Jon Reisner and his team are using
lightning as a predictor of a storm’s strength.
Lightning does not accompany all tropical
storms, but during the record-setting hur-
ricane season of 2005, three of the most
powerful storms—Rita, Katrina, and Emily—
did have lightning and lots of it. According to
NASA, hurricanes are most likely to produce
lightning when they’re making landfall. In
broad terms, lightning activity within and
surrounding a hurricane has been known to
indicate when and where a hurricane may
intensify. Research also shows that if the
electricity moves from the eye (or center) to
the periphery of the cloud, the energy is prob-
ably dissipating. Los Alamos researchers are
trying to flesh out that connection between
More than 1.2 million people along the northern Gulf coast were ordered to evacuate to
escape Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters in 2005, and this New Orleans neighborhood is still
devastated. Reisner’s research may help citizens prepare for such hurricane emergencies.
20 1663 los alamos science and technology magazine june 2012
In this simulation of Hurricane Rita, red dots
denote areas of active lightning within cloud
regions, which correlate well with observed
lightning locations during a period of rapid
lightning activity and hurricane intensity.
Lightning produces electromagnetic
waves with high and low frequencies during
a strike. Los Alamos sensors detect these
frequencies, allowing researchers to charac-
terize the charge associated with the flash.
The detectors and instruments are mounted
aboard planes and flown into the hurricane’s
eye. Reisner brings the lightning data into a
simulation—the first to incorporate a three-
dimensional model of the lightning activity in
Reisner also discovered that by looking
at individual water particles, he was able to
construct a more realistic representation
of the cloud structure within a hurricane.
Traditional hurricane models, his team found,
improperly express cloud boundaries, struc-
turing clouds as continuous objects rather
than collections of particles. When a storm
develops as warm ocean water evaporates,
winds force humid air to rise until the vapor
condenses back into tiny liquid particles.
During condensation, energetic water
particles release heat as they collide and
condense, fueling the storm and forming the
hurricane’s eye wall. These particles interact
or change at miniscule scales—between