Why Are Hurricanes and Typhoons More Common in the Pacific?

Typhoon Nepartak swirling over the Pacific Ocean on July 6, 2016
Typhoon Nepartak swirling over the Pacific Ocean on July 6, 2016

 Taiwan endured the impact of ferocious Typhoon Nepartak this month, a storm that crashed ashore with winds equivalent to those of a category four hurricane. The island nation, which sits off the southeastern coast of China, is a regular target for major tropical cyclones, Nepartak being the second such intense storm to come ashore there within the past year. The eastern Pacific Ocean is also hopping this summer, producing one tropical cyclone every couple of days so far this month. Meanwhile, the Atlantic has been dead quiet. This is a common pattern during the summer, and it raises a natural question: Why are hurricanes and typhoons more common in the Pacific Ocean than the Atlantic Ocean?

Tropical cyclones go by many names around the world, and the terminology can get confusing. Once a tropical cyclone strengthens to the point where it has gale-force winds—39 mph or greater—it becomes a tropical storm. A storm that reaches tropical storm strength usually gets its own name to help us quickly identify it in forecasts and warnings.

Once a tropical storm begins producing sustained winds of around 75 mph, we call the storm a typhoon in the western Pacific near Asia and a hurricane in the oceans on either side of North America. A “typhoon” and a “hurricane” are the same kind of storm, they just go by different names.

The Atlantic Ocean sees its fair share of named storms each year, averaging around 11 named storms in a normal season. The eastern Pacific Ocean averages around 16 named storms every year, and the western Pacific churns out more than two dozen named storms in a normal year. There are several factors that contribute to the Pacific teeming with cyclones while the Atlantic can sometimes struggle to see rogue thunderstorms let alone anything more ominous.

THE PACIFIC IS WARMER


Sea surface temperatures (°C) around the world on July 14, 2016. Image credit: NOAA/ESRL/PSD

 
Warm sea surface water is the fuel that drives tropical cyclones. If you ignore large-scale anomalies like El Niño and La Niña, the waters in the Pacific Ocean are usually warmer than those of the Atlantic Ocean, and the temperatures stay pretty toasty through almost the entire year. If you were to take a swim in the water off the coast of the northern Philippines, it would feel like you dunked yourself into a freshly drawn bath, just as it would if you took a dip in the ocean at a beach in Florida. Though parts of the Atlantic get uncomfortably warm, the expanse of hot water is much larger in the Pacific than it is in the Atlantic. The larger pool of steamy water gives more disturbances the opportunity to spin-up into major storms.

The persistent warmth of the western Pacific allows the typhoon season there to last the entire year, unlike around North America where it starts in May in the eastern Pacific and June in the Atlantic, both stretching through November. In addition to ocean currents, which have a major impact on sea surface temperatures, another significant factor in the Atlantic’s relative coolness is its proximity to land.

THE LAND IS A GOOD DEFENSE

Deep cold fronts don’t stop at the beach when they’re finished sweeping across the United States and Canada. Some cold fronts can keep sailing long after they leave shore, traveling across vast swaths of the ocean and dipping as far south as the islands of the Lesser Antilles. The constant train of cold fronts marching out to sea during the early spring and late fall can put the kibosh on tropical cyclone formation, stabilizing and drying out the air and chilling the warm sea surface waters. The Pacific doesn’t have that common issue—most storms stay far enough north that they don’t much affect the typhoon and hurricane seasons across the basin.


Saharan dust crossing the Atlantic Ocean in June 2010. The image was stitched together from a series of images collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite during successive orbits; gray areas show gaps between satellite overpasses. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory

 
Dry air is also a major problem in the Atlantic Ocean. The Saharan Air Layer (SAL) recently made the news as dust blowing off Africa’s Sahara Desert traveled across the entire ocean and made for some hazy, colorful sunsets in the southeastern United States. These puffs of dry, dusty air coming off Africa don’t only alter our sunsets, but they can have a big effect on tropical cyclones. Dry air is the arch nemesis of tropical cyclones; by their very nature, these cyclones need as much moist air as they can ingest to survive and thrive during their life cycle. Dry air that spirals into the center of a tropical cyclone can collapse the thunderstorms and cause the storm to fizzle out.

Thunderstorms that develop over Africa also serve as the nucleus for some of the worst storms the Atlantic can produce. Disturbances that drift off the African coast can quickly come to life near the Cape Verde Islands, gaining steam as they spiral west toward North America. If western Africa experiences a drought (or the SAL keeps blowing west), it can have a significant impact on the Atlantic hurricane season.

The ironic thing about tropical cyclones is that they produce some of the worst winds on Earth, yet relatively weak winds in the atmosphere can force them to dissipate. Atmospheric wind shear—strong winds that change speed and direction with height—is a death sentence to budding tropical storms. Winds blow the tops off the thunderstorms and prevent them from developing into much more than a brief pulse. Wind shear is also much greater in the tropical Atlantic than it is in the tropical Pacific, both due to regular jet stream patterns and the constant stream of low-pressure systems blowing off North America. 

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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What Should You Do In the Unlikely Event You Meet An Alien?

If you ever find yourself in a Mac and Me-type situation, it's best to know what to do.
If you ever find yourself in a Mac and Me-type situation, it's best to know what to do.
Shout! Factory

What do you do if you encounter an alien? It’s obviously fairly unlikely, but nothing is impossible—after all, you can’t spell meet without ET. If there’s a stray dog in your backyard, there’s a set procedure to follow. But what if, rather than a mere hound, it’s a creature from another world?

“If you meet an alien in your backyard, my recommendation is to get out of town,” Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, an organization seeking to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe, tells Mental Floss. “If they have the technology to come here, they’re so far beyond us that whatever they want to do, they're going to do. If they’re here to take over the planet, it’s going to be pretty hard to stop them.”

A creature from another planet lurking on your property means not only that there is intelligent life elsewhere, but that it is at a significantly more technologically advanced stage than humanity. A species with the ability to not only travel the enormous distances involved (the closest star to our sun, which does have some potentially life-supporting planets, is 4.2 light years away), but also land undetected in your flowerbed would simply have us outclassed.

As you flee, however, you might want to contact the emergency services. If, for instance, the alien is aflame—and given that we know nothing about what form such a creature might take, there’s no real reason it wouldn’t be—you might want to give the fire department a call, for example. Moving up a notch, the FBI and Department of Defense are frequently contacted with flying saucer sightings, as are the UK’s Royal Air Force and Ministry of Defence and, well, pretty much every other emergency service in every country. This is because there is no set protocol, no universally agreed-upon decree of exactly what to do in the event of a close encounter.

“As far as I know, there is no policy for that, because that would be like Neanderthals having a policy for if the U.S. military decided to take them on,” Shostak says. “If aliens were actually landing here, we could have whatever policy we wanted and it wouldn’t be likely to help much.”

A scene from E.T.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Whatever Hollywood might tell us, the likelihood is that any contact we have with beings from another world will be limited to picking up a signal from deep space, rather than encountering the long fingers and warm heart of a charming 3-foot-tall alien rustling around in shrubbery. As luck would have it, there is a protocol for that; it's known as the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence [PDF] and was put together by the International Academy of Astronautics with input from Shostak.

The protocols are also entirely voluntary, with no force of law behind them and nobody under any obligation to adhere to them. What if you don’t want to tell everybody? What if you fancy keeping information about life beyond Earth to yourself for a while? You’re the one talking to aliens, after all—surely you can make a few bucks out of the situation ...

As Shostak points out, this kind of thinking is unlikely to get you anywhere. Given the distances involved, and the power required to transmit information that far, you aren’t going to be in any kind of dialogue. Secondly, revealing that you have detected a transmission is useless without it being verified and studied—the process of which, by necessity, involves making that information available to the world. Thirdly, interpreting any alien message will be a mammoth task involving a lot of work from a lot of people, a task unlikely to ever reach a definitive conclusion. “It would depend on whether they were trying to make it easy,” Shostak says.

Anything you discovered would belong to humanity as a whole, as we collectively tried to figure out what the signal meant, both literally and existentially, knowing we are not alone in the universe. You’d get to be the first person to prove there was intelligent life beyond Earth, which might be mildly less exciting in the short term than getting attacked by a little green man while taking the trash out, but at least you’d live to tell the tale.