Hurricanes Start With Tiny Droplets, Study Hints

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"There's a pretty strong feeling that spray is a key to understanding this problem [of wind intensity], but just how it works is still an open question," said Kerry A. Emanuel, atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Chorin's model shows that spray may lower drag, or friction, in the air, allowing storm winds to ramp up.

Emanuel, meanwhile, conducted research independent of Chorin that suggests spray may play an important role in transferring heat from the sea to the air. This transfer helps power tropical storms.

"A lot of spray could enhance the transfer of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere," Emanuel said.

Chorin's study adds an intriguing piece to the puzzle, but the mathematician is quick to emphasize what the research hasn't done: definitively answer the question of how such storms gain intensity.

"We've done something very specific," he said. "We've suggested that drops in spray can inhibit turbulence in the layer between the ocean and the air and make it possible for extremely high winds to form. We didn't prove that hurricanes are caused by these drops, but it's not that far-fetched."

MIT's Emanuel added, "Getting a handle on this problem is absolutely essential for, among other things, forecasting the intensity of hurricanes."

"Forecasts of [storm] tracks have improved quite dramatically over the past 30 years," he said. "But during the same period intensity predictions have hardly improved at all."

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