The Mass of Hurricanes Converted to More Familiar Units: Cats & Dogs & Elephants

By Jennifer Welsh | September 29, 2010 6:03 pm

hurricaneIf you were to calculate how much a hurricane weighs, what units would you pick?

To understand how much water is in a cloud, it seems many researchers pick the good ole elephant unit, or sometimes a blue whale. Choosing some of the largest animals on the planet gives everyone a better sense of just how much water is up there in the clouds.

Calculating the number of elephants in a small white puffy cloud will start to give you a sense of just how many elephants to expect from your average hurricane. Andy Heymsfield of the National Center for Atmospheric Research told NPR’s science correspondent Robert Krulwich that a single, small, white, cotton-ball cloud weighs about the same as 100 (4-ton) elephants:

“I think the dimensions are somewhat deceiving,” clouds, he says, look small when you are down on the ground, but very often they are much bigger than you think.

These clouds stay afloat because warm air currents flowing up from the earth holds them there, as explained in the NPR animation that goes along with the radio piece.

Moving up to something a little bit heftier, Heymsfield told NPR that a storm cloud (aka cumulonimbus) can absorb about 500 elephants worth of water per second, and weigh much more than a puffy white cloud:

“We are talking a huge number, something like 15 million elephants in the air in condensed form…The scale is just unimaginable, how big these storms are.”

Hurricane Rita was a large hurricane which washed up on the Gulf Coast in 2005 like a herd of millions of elephants—100 million elephants, as Heymsfield told NPR. (Which is exponentially larger than the weight of the whole internet.)

Of course, all of these measurements depend on the size of the storm involved and, of course, on the size of the animal being used as a measuring stick. In cat and dog units, the hurricane would carry “20 billion cats and 20 billion dogs,” Heymsfield told NPR:

“More cats and more dogs than there are on the planet.”

Related content:
Bad Astronomy: Hurricane double whammy
80beats: To Study Storms, NASA Flies a Plane Into Hurricane Earl
80beats: Bill Gates Patents a Device Aimed at Halting Hurricanes
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Threatened by elephants? Try recruiting ants
Discover Magazine: 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Hurricanes
Discover Magazine: Reviews: Does Global Warming Really Boost Hurricanes?
Discover Magazine: Weighing the Universe
Discover Magazine: How Much Does The Internet Weigh?

Image: Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video


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