One might argue there is nothing calm and quiet about a hurricane. As you’re about to find out, that’s wrong. There is a calm, sunny, peaceful part of a hurricane — and it’s dead in the center of it.
The eye of hurricane facts can be fascinating, especially when you realize the calmest part of the storm is immediately surrounded by the most deadly part.
What Is the Eye of a Hurricane?
When you look at an image of a hurricane, like this one of Hurricane Michael in 2019, right near the center, you see what looks like a pinhole. That’s the eye of a hurricane.
Let’s dissect a hurricane, starting with the eye.
- Eye of Hurricane: The central part of a hurricane (aka tropical cyclone). It’s generally 30-40 miles wide, with mostly calm winds and the sky above can be clearly seen. The rest of the hurricane is spinning around it.
- Eyewall of Hurricane: The area surrounding the eye. This is usually the most dangerous part of the storm, loaded with moisture and having the highest winds.
- Outer (Rain) Bands: This is where radar shows the most movement as the bands move counterclockwise around the eye. Outer Bands (aka Spiral Bands) are loaded with rain and thunderstorms. These bands hit land before the eye of the hurricane does.
EYE OF HURRICANE TRIVIA: Hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, and hurricanes in the Southern Hemisphere rotate clockwise. This is due to the Coriolis Effect of how the earth rotates and wind moves in the different halves of the earth.
The Eye & Hurricane Development
Hurricanes form over tropical bodies of water that have a surface temperature of at least 79°(F) and low air pressure. Warm, moist air pulls the evaporating water up (because, as we know, hot air rises) and creates clouds that turn into thunderstorms.
The low-pressure areas are filled with more warm air, and because of that Coriolis Effect, this entire tropical system rotates counterclockwise.
EYE OF HURRICANE FACT: Hurricanes don’t form on the equator because there isn’t enough wind speed to fuel it.
In The Path of the Hurricane Eye
Being in the path of a hurricane is an anxiety-inducing experience. Meteorologists cannot perfectly predict where a hurricane is going to go. They are at the mercy of the winds pushing the hurricane forward.
- OUTER BANDS: First, a location will get the outer bands of the storm. This could be periods of intense rain and gusty winds, followed by hours of dry periods. As the storm churns closer, the rain gets more consistent and the winds become sustained. This is usually when you’ll see the network reporters standing on the beach trying to keep their balance as the rain and wind whip by.
- EYEWALL: The eyewall has the most intense winds and rain. It is the most destructive and deadly part of the storm.
- EYE OF HURRICANE: When the eye moves over land, everything settles down. The winds are breezy at best, and the sun might even be shining.
EYE OF HURRICANE FACT: Many people go outside when the eye of the storm hits. They (wrongfully) assume the worst is over and the storm has passed, when, in fact, the worst is still to come as only half the storm has hit. There’s still another eyeball and potentially hundreds of miles of outerband storms to get through.
What if a Hurricane Doesn’t Have an Eye?
A hurricane isn’t a hurricane until wind speeds reach 74 mph. Before that, it could be a tropical storm or tropical depression. When the speeds are above 74 mph, meteorologists will see the eye start to form.
EYE OF HURRICANE FACT: If you see an image of a hurricane and the eye looks cloudy and not a clear hole, that means the storm has hit its peak intensity and is weakening.
A hurricane can have more than one part of the storm fighting to be the strongest eyewall. This is called the Eyewall Replacement Cycle.
It could mean the storm is weakening, or it could mean the storm is going to build a stronger eyewall, making it a stronger storm and eliminating the previous eyewall.
Can a Hurricane Have More Than One Eye?
During the eyeball replacement cycle, a storm can and does have two eyes, because the eyewalls are in a replacement pattern but haven’t completed it.
In a potential worst-case scenario, two hurricanes or storm systems can connect, absorbing each other and building one bigger storm.
During the process of connecting, the storm will have two eyes until the storm transforms into one stronger storm with one eye.
How Can You See Inside the Eye of a Hurricane?
An elite group of aviators with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called Hurricane Hunters fly right into the storms to gather precious data needed to help make storm forecasts for meteorologists across the world.
The Hurricane Hunters have three aircraft; Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and Gonzo. What started as a joke between aviators turned into a brilliant marketing campaign between NOAA and Henson Productions.
The Hurricane Hunters fly into the storm in a zigzag pattern dropping dropsondes, which are weather devices with mini-parachutes that fall to the water from high altitudes, gathering a plethora of weather data on the way down and sending it back to NOAA.
The planes are loaded with radar technology and all kinds of cool tools to get as much information about a developing hurricane as possible.
Its can better interpret the data and give more reliable weather information to viewers in the path of a dangerous storm.
The Dreaded Pinhole Eye of Hurricane
In 2017, the National Weather Center in Miami issued an evening hurricane update on Hurricane Maria.
“Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye.”
– National Weather Service, September 18, 2017
A pinhole eye is one that is less than 10 miles in diameter. Why is it so dreaded?
Think of an ice skater on the rink doing spins. When the arms are extended, the skater goes a little slower, but to build momentum, they make the center of spinning smaller by pulling their arms in.
Before you know it, they are going so fast it makes you a little dizzy. That’s what a pinhole eye does for a hurricane. It makes it spin faster and there’s a small space for it to rotate around.
When Does the Eye Go Away?
Once a hurricane hits land, there’s no more warm water to fuel all the mechanics of the storm, so it will slowly die down. Once the storm goes below 74 mph, the eyeball dissipates and there’s just a large chunk of rain and thunderstorms in a tropical storm moving across land. It’s not an instant dissipation.
Strong hurricanes have gone hundreds of miles inland before being downgraded to a tropical storm. It’s just that over solid land the hurricane cannot get stronger.
Can Birds Really Get Trapped in a Hurricane’s Eye?
Yes! They can and do. The most active time of hurricane season is in the late summer or early fall, right when some birds are starting their migration. When birds get caught up in the wicked winds of a tropical storm or cyclone, they search out a calm place.
One of those places might be the eye of the storm. It’s calm and quiet there, but there is no way out until the storm dies down.
There’s no food unless they are fish-eating birds, and there’s nowhere to rest. This can leave birds far off course from their migration location wherever they storm dissipates.
How Powerful Can an Eye Make a Hurricane?
If you could take the kinetic energy of a hurricane and apply it to powering electricity, an average hurricane could provide power to half the earth. It’s just a moving ball of incredible power.
The suction of a hurricane, pulling in warm, moist air, can even lower sea levels as it approaches. In 2017, as Hurricane Irma approached the Suncoast of Florida, its suction was so intense the water levels at Sarasota Bay lowered to the point that manatees were left beached on what used to be the floor of the bay. People rushed to pour water on them to keep them alive.