Posts with «nature & environment» label

New York joins California in aiming to make all auto sales hybrid or EV by 2035

New York is following California's lead by mandating that all new cars, pickups and SUVs sold in the state must be either EVs or plug-in hybrids, Governor Kathy Hochul announced. To reach that goal, 35 percent of new cars must be zero-emission by 2026 and 60 percent by 2030. New school buses must also be zero emissions by 2035. A public hearing will be held before the rules are put into place.

Hochul ordered the state's environmental agency to create similar standards to those adopted by California that phases out all fossil-fuel-only car sales by 2035. Those rules went into last month and were designed to reduce passenger vehicle pollution 25 percent by 2037, with 9.5 fewer internal-combustion engine (ICE) only vehicles sold by 2035.

“We had to wait for California to take a step because there’s some federal requirements that California had to go first — that’s the only time we’re letting them go first,” the governor said in a press conference yesterday.

NEW: All new vehicles sold in New York must be zero emissions by 2035.

By revving up our clean transportation transition and making major investments to make EVs more accessible, we’re supercharging our fight against climate change.

— Governor Kathy Hochul (@GovKathyHochul) September 29, 2022

The state is following California's actions for a reason. The Clean Air Act permits California to set its own pollution rules, but other states aren't allowed to do that. However, they can follow California once it acts — so California must pave the way for any emissions rules implemented by individual states.

The governor also unveiled a $10 million Drive Clean Rebate Program. That gives residents a $2,000 rebate toward the purchase of over 60 EVs and plug-in hybrids that's on top of the $7,500 federal tax rebate. The state has spent $92 million on the program to date. The state also announced the installation of its 100th fast charger as part of the EVolve charging network. 

"With sustained state and federal investments, our actions are incentivizing New Yorkers, local governments, and businesses to make the transition to electric vehicles," Hochul said.

The UK needs a better plan to heat its homes than hydrogen

The case for heating homes with hydrogen rather than natural gas appears to be dead. In the UK, hydrogen has become an important part of the debate around decarbonizing home heating. 85 percent of all homes use natural gas to heat space and water, with the oil and gas industry pushing hydrogen as something that can leverage the existing gas pipelines. And lawmakers with close ties to the industry have claimed that hydrogen is a “silver bullet” to help the UK reach its climate targets.

According to a new study from the Regulatory Assistance Project, an NGO, such claims are a big pile of old nonsense. The project ran an extensive meta-analysis of research into hydrogen technology overall, finding that the promises of easy retrofit don’t add up. It said that it wasn’t clear if the existing infrastructure was actually suitable to take hydrogen without major adaptation. That was, after all, one of the major selling points of using hydrogen over switching to heat pumps and other low-carbon methods.

It’s something that Engadget already covered in its extensive report on the UK’s home heating situation back in 2021. The suitability of infrastructure is only one part of the problem, however, since many experts also asked where all of this hydrogen was coming from. Supplying the UK with enough hydrogen to heat 85 percent of its homes, without any work to reduce demand, would require around 10 million tons of hydrogen.

In that report, Tim Lord, who was previously responsible for the UK’s decarbonization strategy, said that to generate that much hydrogen cleanly, you would need around 75 gigawatts of offshore wind. The UK Government’s most recent figures say that the country’s total installed offshore wind capacity is just 10 gigawatts. It’s hard to see the economic case for installing seven-and-a-half times the total offshore wind capacity just to generate hydrogen.

The Regulatory Assistance Project’s report also found that trying to use hydrogen for space and hot water heating is a waste of a vital material. Green hydrogen could be put to better use in agricultural processes, like making fertilizer or in heavy industry. And we’ve already seen that green hydrogen has a part to play in decarbonizing industrial transport, like shipping, and in the railways where mass-electrification isn’t viable.

In its conclusions, the report adds that greater emphasis on hydrogen will only serve to delay the take up of better technologies, like heat pumps. There’s a political dimension to this, too, with The Guardian reporting that hydrogen lobbyists were out in force at the recent Labour Party conference, and are expected to attend next week’s Conservative Party conference as well.

Another study, from the MCS Charitable Foundation in partnership with energy analysts Cornwall Insight, found that hydrogen’s cost to consumers would be nightmarish. It found that switching from natural gas to hydrogen would likely see the cost increase by between 70 to 90 percent on average. It also warned that, unlike electricity, hydrogen would be subject to the same market volatility as other fossil fuels.

As before, this study raises the question about how much we can rely upon hydrogen given that many of its key needs are still untested. For instance, steam reformation of methane would still require carbon capture and storage at a vastly larger scale than present. (Not to mention the fact that methane is a far deadlier climate gas than carbon dioxide, so any leaks or accidents would be significantly more damaging for the planet.)

Fundamentally, on this and all of the other evidence, it would seem like legislators should avoid the expensive distraction of hydrogen in favor of full-scale electrification. That, as we’ve already covered, would provide a significant, and swift, reduction in emissions (and a timely boost to the economy).

NYU is building an ultrasonic flood sensor network in New York's Gowanus neighborhood

People made some 760 million trips aboard New York’s subway system last year. Granted, that’s down from around 1.7 trillion trips, pre-pandemic, but still far outpaced the next two largest transit systems — DC’s Metro and the Chicago Transit Authority — combined. So when major storms, like last year’s remnants of Hurricane Ida, nor'easters, heavy downpours or swelling tides swamp New York’s low lying coastal areas and infrastructure, it’s a big deal.

Jonathan Oatis / reuters

And it’s a deal that’s only getting bigger thanks to climate change. Sea levels around the city have already risen a foot in the last century with another 8- to 30-inch increase expected by mid century, and up to 75 additional inches by 2100, according to the New York City Panel on Climate Change. To help city planners, emergency responders and everyday citizens alike better prepare for 100-year storms that are increasingly happening every couple, researchers from NYU’s Urban Flooding Group have developed a street-level sensor system that can track rising street tides in real time.

The city of New York is set atop a series of low lying islands and has been subject to the furies of mid-Atlantic hurricanes throughout its history. In 1821, a hurricane reportedly hit directly over the city, flooding streets and wharves with 13-foot swells rising over the course of just one hour; a subsequent Cat I storm in 1893 then scoured all signs of civilization from Hog Island, and a Cat III passed over Long Island, killing 200 and causing major flooding. Things did not improve with the advent of a storm naming convention. Carol in 1954 also caused citywide floods, Donna in ‘60 brought an 11-foot storm surge with her, and Ida in 2021 saw an unprecedented amount of rainfall and subsequent flooding in the region, killing more than 100 people and causing nearly a billion dollars in damages.


As the NYC Planning Department explains, when it comes to setting building codes, zoning and planning, the city works off of FEMA’s Preliminary Flood Insurance Rate Maps (PFIRMs) to calculate an area’s flood risk. PFIRMs cover the areas where, “flood waters are expected to rise during a flood event that has a 1 percent annual chance of occurring,” sometimes called the 100-year floodplain. As of 2016, some 52 million square feet of NYC coastline falls within that categorization, impacting 400,000 residents — more than than the entire populations of Cleveland, Tampa, or St. Louis. By 2050, that area of effect is expected to double and the probability of 100-year floods occuring could triple, meaning the chances that your home will face significant flooding over the course of a 30-year mortgage would jump from around 26 percent today to nearly 80 percent by mid-century.


As such, responding to today’s floods while preparing for worsening events in the future is a critical task for NYC’s administration, requiring coordination between governmental and NGOs at the local, state and federal levels. FloodNet, a program launched first by NYU and expanded with help from CUNY, operates on the hyperlocal level to provide a street-by-street look at flooding throughout a given neighborhood. The program began with NYU’s Urban Flooding Group.

“We are essentially designing, building and deploying low cost sensors to measure street level flooding,” Dr. Andrea Silverman, environmental engineer and Associate Professor at NYU’s Department of Civil and Urban Engineering, told Engadget. “The idea is that it can provide badly needed quantitative data. Before FloodNet, there was no quantitative data on street level flooding, so people didn't really have a full sense of how often certain locations were flooding — the duration of the floods, the depth, rates of onset and drainage, for example.”

Urban Flooding Group, NYU

“And these are all pieces of information that are helpful for infrastructure planning, for one, but also for emergency management,” she continued. “So we do have our data available, they send alerts to see folks that are interested, like the National Weather Service and emergency management, to help inform their response.”

FloodNet is currently in early development with just 23 sensor units erected on 8-foot tall posts throughout the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, though the team hopes to expand that network to more than 500 units citywide within the next half decade. Each FloodNet sensor is a self-contained, solar-powered system that uses ultrasound as an invisible rangefinder — as flood waters rise, the distance between the street surface and the sensor shrinks, calculating the difference between that and baseline readings shows how much the water level has risen. The NYU team opted for an ultrasound-based solution rather than, say LiDAR or RADAR, due to ultrasound tech being slightly less expensive and providing more focused return data, as well as being more accurate and requiring less maintenance than a basic contact water sensor.

The data each sensor produces is transmitted wirelessly using a LoRa transceiver to a gateway hub, which can pull from any sensor within a one-mile radius and push it through the internet to the FloodNet servers. The data is then displayed in real-time on the FloodNet homepage.

URban Flooding Group, NYU

”The city has invested a lot in predictive models [estimating] where it would flood with a certain amount of rain, or increase in tide,” Silverman said. Sensors won’t have to be installed on every corner to be most effective, she pointed out. There are “certain locations that are more likely to be flood prone because of topology or because of the sewer network or because of proximity to the coast, for example. And so we use those models to try to get a sense of locations where it may be most flood-prone,” as well as reach out to local residents with first-hand knowledge of likely flood areas.

In order to further roll out the program, the sensors will need to undergo a slight redesign, Silverman noted. “The next version of the sensor, we're taking what we've learned from our current version and making it a bit more manufacturable,” she said. “We're in the process of testing that and then we're hoping to start our first manufacturing round, and that's what's going to allow us to expand out”.

FloodNet is an open-source venture, so all of the sensor schematics, firmware, maintenance guides and data are freely available on the team’s GitHub page. “Obviously you need to have some sort of technical know-how to be able to build them — it may not be right now where just anyone could go build a sensor, deploy it and be online immediately, in terms of being able to just generate the data, but we're trying to get there,” Silverman conceded. “Eventually we'd love to get to a place where we can have the designs written up in a way that anyone can approach it.”

EPA opens new office dedicated to environmental justice and civil rights

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has formed a new office designed to help marginalized communities deal with the extra burdens of pollution and climate change, Reuters has reported. The Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights will be staffed by 200 EPA employees located in the agency's Washington head office and 10 regional bureaus. 

"The establishment of a new office dedicated to advancing environmental justice and civil rights at EPA will ensure the lived experiences of underserved communities are central to our decision-making while supporting community-driven solutions," said US Vice President Kamala Harris.

One of the primary jobs of the new office will be to oversea the distribution of $3 billion in environmental justice grants created by the passage the of Inflation Reduction Act, as part of a $60 billion investment in environmental justice. It'll also check that other EPA programs hew to President Biden's Justice40 initiative designed to ensure that 40 percent of certain government investments flow to disadvantaged communities. Finally, it'll help communities access grants, enforce civil rights laws and resolve environmental conflicts.

The new office was launched at an event in Warren County, North Carolina, the site of 1982 protests over toxic waste dumping in the region. The resulting civil disobedience actions and arrests failed to stop the 22-acre dump, but gave birth to the modern environmental justice movement. The 40th anniversary of the protests was commemorated by participants last week. 

Mercedes' F1 team used biofuel to cut freight carbon emissions by 89 percent

Formula 1 isn't exactly the most environmentally friendly organization, but it's trying to become much greener. F1 is targeting net zero carbon emissions by the end of the decade and engine makers have been testing sustainable fuels over the last few years. F1 leaders are aiming to only use sustainable fuels in F1 cars by 2026. Race cars are only a small piece of the puzzle, though. Holding two dozen grands prix around the world requires shifting cars, parts and other materials between circuits, which generate more carbon emissions.

The Mercedes-AMG F1 team, however, has experimented with a way to reduce freight emissions. It used hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO 100) biofuel in 16 trucks as it moved operations between Spa, Zandvoort and Monza for the final three European grands prix of the season. Since those circuits are relatively close to each other, Mercedes didn't need to rely on, say, air freight to ship cars and components. That gave the team a good opportunity to test the biofuel, given a total driving distance of around 1,400 kilometers (870 miles). However, the team noted it needed to use diesel fuel for the last 20km (just over 12 miles) due to supply issues.

An analysis found that using HVO 100 reduced freight emissions by 89 percent. Overall, Mercedes saved 44,091kg (97,204 pounds) of carbon dioxide emissions, compared with solely using diesel for both journeys. It noted HVO 100 is derived from vegetable oils, waste oils and fats and that it's entirely free of fossil fuels. The fuel also produces less Nox and particulate emissions.

“Sustainability is at the heart of our operations. Trialing the use of biofuels for our land freight is another example of our commitment to embed sustainability in every decision we make and action we take," Mercedes F1 team principal Toto Wolff said. "We aim to be on the cutting edge of change and hope we can make the adoption of sustainable technology possible as we are all in the race towards a sustainable tomorrow.”

Other biofuels are being tested for use in Formula 1. Teams started using E10 biofuels (which contain 10 percent renewable ethanol) in F1 cars this season as part of the transition to fully sustainable fuels. While that's some distance away from employing fully sustainable fuels, the use of E10 and HVO 100 are positive steps toward making motorsport much healthier for the environment.

GM wants to help shape the EPA's next clean car standard

GM wants to exclusively sell electric vehicles by 2035, and it's now trying to nudge the US government toward the same goal. The automaker has teamed up with an advocacy group, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), to develop recommended principles for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) car emissions standards from the 2027 model year onward. The guidelines are meant to accelerate EV adoption in a socially conscious way — and, of course, help GM's bottom line.

The brand wants standards that ensure at least half of new vehicles sold by are zero-emissions by 2030, with a 60 percent reduction in emissions across a lineup compared to 2021. They need to address multiple pollution sources (such as CO2, nitrogen oxides and particles) and be "performance-based," GM argues. The company also believes there should be an optional pathway to speed up the launch of breakthrough emissions-reducing technology, and that standards should ensure the benefits of reduced pollution apply to everyone (such as vulnerable communities). Not surprisingly, GM hopes for tight coordination between the public and private realms, including complementary investments.

GM and the EDF want a quick decision process. They'd like the standards to be proposed this fall, and completed by fall 2023. The standards should last until 2032 at a minimum, the partners said, but they also hoped the EPA would extend that to 2035.

There might not be much opposition to the basic concept. President Biden already wants half of new vehicles to be emissions-free by 2030, and the EPA reversed Trump-era standards rollbacks in December. Meanwhile, California, Massachusetts and New York State expect to ban sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035 and frequently push for stricter standards than the federal government. The principles and resulting EPA standards would theoretically help politicians reach these targets sooner by encouraging manufacturers to electrify their fleets quickly.

Whether or not GM and the EDF get their way isn't clear. The EPA isn't guaranteed to take the principles to heart, and a change of presidents could lead to weaker rules. We'd add that GM has altered its stance on emissions reductions depending on who's in office. The firm backed the Trump administration's efforts to revoke waivers letting California set tougher requirements, only to change its tune after Biden won the 2020 election. Still, we wouldn't expect GM to back out any time soon. The company has staked its future on EVs, and it stands to profit if the market shifts to eco-friendly vehicles a little sooner.

Amazon will start testing ultra-low carbon electrofuels for deliveries in 2023

Amazon is partnering with Infinium to test the use of so-called electrofuels (e-fuels) in its middle-mile diesel fleet, it announced. The company invested in Infinium last year as part of its goal to reach net-zero carbon by 2040. "We’ve been developing this technology for the better part of a decade, and we expect our electrofuels to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by approximately 95 percent over traditional fossil fuel," said Infinium CEO Robert Schuetzle in a statement. 

As part of this, Infinium plans to build one of the first-ever electrofuel production facilities in Texas, using renewable-generated hydrogen and around 18,000 tons of recycled carbon waste per year.

A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are created by the transportation industry, Amazon notes. Infinium's e-fuels supposedly help combat that by combining green hydrogen (from electrolysis) with captured CO2 that would otherwise be emitted by industrial plants. The CO2 and hydrogen are combined into "syngas," which is then converted to liquid fuels via catalysts. The resulting "drop-in" fuel can be used directly in existing, unmodified diesel vans.


The vans still emit carbon emissions, but those would have been produced anyway by the industrial plants, so it's supposedly a net-zero operation. The electrofuels are about twice as expensive as traditional fuels, Infinium has explained

There are clearly some issues that come to mind — the first being that the renewable power used to create hydrogen would be put to much better use in battery-electric vehicles. And neither Amazon nor Infinium explained where they got the 95 percent reduction figure, so I'd take that with a large grain of salt. Finally, despite the 2040 net-zero pledge, Amazon's emissions increased dramatically last year — and that's likely a drastic undercount. 

Still, it could serve as an intermediate step. Infinium has previously noted that Amazon will "need liquid fuels for a long time" for ground, marine and air travel. Amazon is also taking other measures, like using green hydrogen (rather than grey hydrogen derived from fossil fuels or other fossil fuels) to power 30,000 forklifts and 800 heavy-duty trucks. It's also investing in companies that develop more efficient hydrogen electrolyzers and has ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian. 

Puerto Rico loses power as Hurricane Fiona brings threat of 'catastrophic' flooding

Almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in the dark, the US territory is once again facing a power crisis. On Sunday, LUMA Energy, the company that operates the island’s electrical grid, announced that all of Puerto Rico had suffered a blackout due to Hurricane Fiona, reports Reuters.

With the storm nearing the island’s southwest coast, the National Hurricane Center warned of “catastrophic” flooding as Fiona began producing winds with recorded speeds of 85 miles per hour. Without even making landfall, the storm left a third of LUMA’s customers without power. On Twitter, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said the government was working to restore power, but after the events of five years ago, there’s worry there won’t be an easy fix.

#BREAKING All of #PuertoRico plunged into darkness (once again) after another hurricane unleashes its fury on their fragile electrical grid. #Fiona Brings back memories of #Maria 5 years ago

— Derek Van Dam (@VanDamCNN) September 18, 2022

In 2017, Hurricane Maria caused the largest blackout in US history when the Category 5 storm battered Puerto Rico, leaving 3.4 million people without power. The island had only recently begun rebuilding its weakened infrastructure, with blackouts a daily occurrence in some areas. Officials have tried to stress that Hurricane Fiona won’t bring a repeat of 2017. “This is not Maria, this hurricane will not be Maria,” Abner Gomez, the head of public safety and crisis management at LUMA Energy, told CNN before Sunday’s power outage.

Samsung vows to produce net zero carbon emissions by 2050

Samsung has made a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions for the whole company by 2050 and will spend KRW 7 trillion (US$5 billion) over the next seven-and-a-half years to make that happen. While its plans are likely not as aggressive as Microsoft's, which previously promised to be carbon negative by the end of the decade, it intends to implement changes soon so that its Device eXperience (DX) Division is producing net zero carbon by 2030. 

Samsung's DX division encompasses its consumer electronics businesses, including its mobile and display manufacturing operations, and was only responsible for 10 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. Meanwhile, the company's chip and components business, which is often is biggest moneymaker, was responsible for 90 percent of the 17.4 million tons of greenhouses gases it emitted last year. 

Clearly, there's a lot of work to be done for its chipmaking business to be net zero. One of the things the company plans to do is develop technologies that can significantly reduce the gas byproducts of semiconductor manufacturing. Samsung also plans to install treatment facilities at its chip-making plants. In addition, the company will develop carbon capture and utilization technologies that can harness carbon emissions from its semiconductor facilities, store them and then turn them into a usable source. 

The tech giant has joined RE100, the global initiative for businesses that want to use renewable energy to power their operation, as well. It will start by running the DX division and all operations outside its home country on renewable energy within the next five years before matching 100 percent of all its power needs around the world with renewable energy by 2050. Samsung has also detailed other environmental plans in its announcement, including its commitment to promote water reuse and to expand its electronic waste collection initiative to 180 countries from 50. 

A spokesperson for one of its shareholders told Reuters that Samsung had delayed making a clear commitment towards reducing carbon emissions so much, it became a growing concern among long-term investors. Kim Soo-jin, Samsung's head of ESG strategy group, explained: "We are a company that manufactures directly... so there are various, layered challenges. In the end, we are a technology company... So we will contribute positively to climate change through technology development. Since we are a large company and our products are widely used, we will make an impact through scale."

Hitting the Books: How hurricanes work

Hurricane season is currently in full swing across the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard. Following a disconcertingly quiet start in June, meteorologists still expect a busier-than-usual stretch before the windy weather (hopefully) winds down at the end of November. Meteorologists like Matthew Cappucci who, in his new book, Looking Up: The True Adventures of a Storm-Chasing Weather Nerd, recounts his career as a storm chaser — from childhood obsession to adulthood obsession as a means of gainful employment. In the excerpt below, Cappucci explains the inner workings of tropical storms.

Simon and Schuster

Excerpted from Looking Up: The True Adventures of a Storm-Chasing Weather Nerd by Matthew Cappucci. Published by Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2022 by Matthew Cappucci. All rights reserved.

Hurricanes are heat engines. They derive their fury from warm ocean waters in the tropics, where sea surface temperatures routinely hover in the mid- to upper-eighties between July and October. Hurricanes and tropical storms fall under the umbrella of tropical cyclones. They can be catastrophic, but they have a purpose—some scholars estimate they’re responsible for as much as 10 percent of the Earth’s annual equator-to-pole heat transport.

Hurricanes are different from mid-latitude systems. So-called extratropical, or nontropical, storms depend upon variations in air temperature and density to form, and feed off of changing winds. Hurricanes require a calm environment with gentle upper-level winds and a nearly uniform temperature field. Ironic as it may sound, the planet’s worst windstorms are born out of an abundance of tranquility.

The first ingredient is a tropical wave, or clump of thunderstorms. Early in hurricane season, tropical waves can spin up on the tail end of cold fronts surging off the East Coast. During the heart of hurricane season in August and September, they commonly materialize off the coast of Africa in the Atlantic’s Main Development Region. By October and November, sneaky homegrown threats can surreptitiously gel in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean.

Every individual thunderstorm cell within a tropical wave has an updraft and a downdraft. The downward rush of cool air collapsing out of one cell can suffocate a neighboring cell, spelling its demise. In order for thunderstorms to coexist in close proximity, they must organize. The most efficient way of doing so is through orienting themselves around a common center, with individual cells’ updrafts and downdrafts working in tandem.

When a center forms, a broken band of thunderstorms begins to materialize around it. Warm, moist air rises within those storms, most rapidly as one approaches the broader system’s low-level center. That causes atmospheric pressure to drop, since air is being evacuated and mass removed. From there, the system begins to breathe.

Air moves from high pressure to low pressure. That vacuums air inward toward the center. Because of the Coriolis force, a product of the Earth’s spin, parcels of air take a curved path into the fledgling cyclone’s center. That’s what causes the system to rotate.

Hurricanes spin counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, and clockwise south of the equator. Though the hottest ocean waters in the world are found on the equator, a hurricane could never form there. That’s because the Coriolis force is zero on the equator; there’d be nothing to get a storm to twist.

As pockets of air from outside the nascent tropical cyclone spiral into the vortex, they expand as barometric pressure decreases. That releases heat into the atmosphere, causing clouds and rain. Ordinarily that would result in a drop in temperature of an air parcel, but because it’s in contact with toasty ocean waters, it maintains a constant temperature; it’s heated at the same rate that it’s losing temperature to its surroundings. As long as a storm is over the open water and sea surface temperatures are sufficiently mild, it can continue to extract oceanic heat content.

Rainfall rates within tropical cyclones can exceed four inches per hour thanks to high precipitation efficiency. Because the entire atmospheric column is saturated, there’s little evaporation to eat away at a raindrop on the way down. As a result, inland freshwater flooding is the number one source of fatalities from tropical cyclones.

The strongest winds are found toward the middle of a tropical storm or hurricane in the eyewall. The greatest pressure gradient, or change of air pressure with distance, is located there. The sharper the gradient, the stronger the winds. That’s because air is rushing down the gradient. Think about skiing — you’ll ski faster if there’s a steeper slope.

When maximum sustained winds surpass 39 mph, the system is designated a tropical storm. Only once winds cross 74 mph is it designated a hurricane. Major hurricanes have winds of 111 mph or greater and correspond to Category 3 strength. A Category 5 contains extreme winds topping 157 mph.

Since the winds are derived from air rushing in to fill a void, or deficit of air, the fiercest hurricanes are usually those with the lowest air pressures. The most punishing hurricanes and typhoons may have a minimum central barometric pressure about 90 percent of ambient air pressure outside the storm. That means 10 percent of the atmosphere’s mass is missing.

Picture stirring your cup of coffee with a teaspoon. You know that dip in the middle of the whirlpool? The deeper the dip, or fluid deficit, the faster the fluid must be spinning. Hurricanes are the same. But what prevents that dip from filling in? Hurricane eyewalls are in cyclostrophic balance.

That means a perfect stasis of forces makes it virtually impossible to “fill in” a storm in steady state. Because of their narrow radius of curvature, parcels of air swirling around the eye experience an incredible outward-directed centrifugal force that exactly equals the inward tug of the pressure gradient force. That leaves them to trace continuous circles.

If you’ve ever experienced a change in altitude, such as flying on an airplane, or even traveling to the top of a skyscraper, you probably noticed your ears popping. That’s because they were adjusting to the drop in air pressure with height. Now imagine all the air below that height vanished. That’s the equivalent air pressure in the eye a major hurricane. The disparity in air pressure is why a hurricane is, in the words of Buddy the Elf, “sucky. Very sucky.”

Sometimes hurricanes undergo eyewall replacement cycles, which entail an eyewall shriveling and crumbling into the eye while a new eyewall forms around it and contracts, taking the place of its predecessor. This usually results in a dual wind maximum near the storm’s center as well as a brief plateau in intensification.

In addition to the scouring winds found inside the eyewall, tornadoes, tornado-scale vortices, mini swirls, and other poorly understood small-scale wind phenomena can whip around the eye and result in strips of extreme damage. A mini swirl may be only a couple yards wide, but a 70 mph whirlwind moving in a background wind of 100 mph can result in a narrow path of 170 mph demolition. Their existence was first hypothesized following the passage of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew through south Florida in 1992, and modern-day efforts to study hurricane eyewalls using mobile Doppler radar units have shed light on their existence. Within a hurricane’s eye, air sinks and warms, drying out and creating a dearth of cloud cover. It’s not uncommon to see clearing skies or even sunshine. The air is hot and still, an oasis of peace enveloped in a hoop of hell.

There’s such a discontinuity between the raucous winds of the eyewall and deathly stillness of the eye that the atmosphere struggles to transition. The eyes of hurricanes are often filled with mesovortices, or smaller eddies a few miles across, that help flux and dissipate angular momentum into the eye. Sometimes four or five mesovortices can cram into the eye, contorting the eyewall into a clover-like shape. That makes for a period of extraordinary whiplash on the inner edge of the eyewall as alternating clefts of calamitous wind and calm punctuate the eye’s arrival.