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Hurricanes get their start over the warm tropical waters of the North
Atlantic Ocean near the equator. Most hurricanes appear in late summer or early
fall, when sea temperatures are at their highest. The warm waters heats the air
above it, and the updrafts of warm, moist air begin to rise. Day after day the
fluffy cumuli form atop the updrafts. But the cloud tops rarely rise higher than
about 6,000 feet. At that height in the tropics, there is usually a layer of
warm, dry air that acts like an invisible ceiling or lid.
Once in a while, something happens in the upper air that destroys this lid.
Scientist don not know how this happens. But when it does, it's the first step
in the birth of a hurricane.
With the lid off, the warm, moist air rises higher and higher. Heat energy,
released as the water vapor in the air condenses. As it condenses it drives the
upper drafts to heights of 50,000 to 60,000 feet. The cumuli become towering
From outside the storm area, air moves in over the sea surface to replace
the air soaring upwards in the thunderheads. The air begins swirling around the
storm center, for the same reason that the air swirls around a tornado center.
As this air swirls in over the sea surface, it soaks up more and more water
vapour. At the storm center, this new supply of water vapor gets pulled into the
thunderhead updrafts, releasing still more energy as the water vapor condenses.
This makes the updrafts rise faster, pulling in even larger amounts of air and
water vapor from the storm's edges. And as the updrafts speed up, air swirls
faster and faster around the storm center. The storm clouds, moving with the
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