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The science of tracking Gustav

  • Story Highlights
  • The most dangerous part of a hurricane is the eastern side, CNN meteorologist says
  • Greatest amount of wind is on the right side because of counterclockwise rotation
  • Storm surge happens when wind is so strong that it causes the water to pile up
  • Hurricanes can spawn tornadoes because they bring instability in the atmosphere
  • Next Article in Technology »
By A. Pawlowski
CNN
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(CNN) -- Hurricanes can be some of the deadliest forces of nature, but they also follow a set of patterns and rules when they form.

Some parts of the storms can be more treacherous than others.

Geography also can play a huge role in how big and strong they will grow before they strike the United States.

CNN meteorologist Reynolds Wolf talked with CNN.com about Hurricane Gustav's path and potential for damage.

Q: There's been a lot of talk about the storm hitting to the west of New Orleans being worse for the city. Why is that?

The most dangerous part of the storm, when it comes to a hurricane, is always going to be the eastern side. One of the reasons why is simply because a lot of these tropical storm systems, they carry the greatest amount of wind, the greatest amount of storm surge, the heaviest rainfall ... on the right side of the storm simply because of the counterclockwise rotation.

When Katrina passed in 2005 and made its way just east of New Orleans, it did quite a bit of damage, but New Orleans actually was affected by the weakest part of the storm.

This time, the storm is going to be pushing a little bit more to the west, which means New Orleans will be affected by the strongest part of the storm, the most damaging part of the storm in terms of wind, in terms of rain, in terms of storm surge.

It's going to be a huge problem for many people. The big threat also with this storm is not really what is going to happen today but possibly tomorrow through Thursday.

The system is going to stall out over parts of extreme western Louisiana and parts of extreme eastern Texas and even into Arkansas, and some places could see well over a foot of rainfall.

So we're going to go from it being a tropical system to a dying system. The winds will subside in a couple of days, but the rain is going to be a tremendous threat. Flooding is going to be a big issue.

Q: Where is the flooding potential the greatest?

The flooding potential in the next couple of days will be actually at its greatest in parts of northwestern Louisiana, eastern Texas and extreme southwestern Arkansas. You might even want to include parts of southeastern Oklahoma in that as well.

Q: Can you explain the storm surge and how that works?

What happens is when you have strong winds that spin around the center of circulation from these tropical systems, the wind is so strong that it actually causes the water to pile up. The stronger the winds, theoretically, the greater the storm surge.

Say, for example, with a storm like this one, which was a Category 3 storm [it came ashore as a Category 2], you could have a storm surge that would be, say, 10 to maybe 15 feet higher than normal.

A Category 4 storm would have a storm surge that would go up to, say, 18 feet. A Category 5, the most devastating, would have a storm surge in excess of 18 feet.

Q: Has the technology of tracking these storms changed since Hurricane Katrina?

It's essentially the same. I think we're better in terms of observing [hurricanes] on the ground. We've got better, more experienced trackers that are actually watching and monitoring the storm as it comes in. We've got better weather stations that are actually unmanned that are out on the open water, that are onshore. They certainly make a big difference.

We've got better technology in terms of our hurricane hunter aircraft; they've got better technology in reading and determining the power and intensity of these storms.

One thing you have to remember with these storms, they form over open water. It's not like having a bunch of thunderstorms in the central Plains where you have radar stations all over. You have to really rely on what we refer to as remote sensing -- satellites -- and satellites can only you tell you one part [of the story]; they tell you what's happening from way high above in space.

You have to have something go in there and get some information from inside the storm. To do that, you have these C-130s, the aircraft that go out there and they drop these little things of instrumentation they refer to as dropsondes.

As they drop through parts of the hurricane, you can pick up barometric pressure, wind speeds, moisture content, stuff that's very crucial for scientists to get a good idea of when the storm is going to strengthen or weaken.

Q. Whenever hurricanes pass, there's also the threat of tornadoes. Why?

When you have these systems and they come on shore, they tend to be pretty volatile. There's a great deal of instability in the atmosphere with them. When these storms come through, they can produce tornadoes. Usually, they're relatively weak, of the F0 to F1 variety [on the Fujita tornado damage scale]. Very, very weak tornadoes.

They usually don't last very long; they're not like your tornadoes in the central Plains. And a couple of things to remember about them too is even though they're small, they can still be really dangerous because they tend to be rain-wrapped; there's a lot of rain around them. They're very hard for people to see.

They also strike very quickly and dissipate. So they can hit quickly, hit hard and then they're gone. They normally form in the upper right or northeast quadrant [of the storm].

Q. Hurricane Gustav was very well-organized when it passed over Cuba and seems less organized right now. Is that better news for New Orleans?

I would definitely say so. We ought to be sending gift baskets to Fidel Castro, and the reason why is because if it were not for Cuba and many of the islands in the Caribbean, the U.S. would be suffering, we would be losing a heck of a lot more lives. [Cuba] has been a buffer for us; it really has.

Q. Gustav is hitting New Orleans just three years after Hurricane Katrina. Has something changed in the weather patterns to spawn more of these storms in the Gulf?

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It's not global warming; it's not climate change; it just happens.

You have to remember the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and we've only been keeping track of weather [events] with reliable weather equipment, I'd say, for the past 40 to 50 years. So as long as there has been a Gulf Coast, as long as you've had a Gulf of Mexico, you could argue that hurricanes have been hitting the Gulf Coast for millions of years; there just hasn't been anyone to report them.

All About Hurricane KatrinaHurricane GustavNew Orleans

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