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Behind the scenes: Nate got "disorganised" while remnants of Katia came to UK with a force

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Helen Czerski Helen Czerski | 12:30 UK time, Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Distance travelled ~ 659'976'800 km

Hurricane hunting was not supposed to be like this. The Sun was shining, there were butterflies everywhere, and there wasn't enough wind to blow out a candle on a birthday cake. On the plus side, we had to give ourselves top marks for trying and I didn't have to get drenched again.

Twenty four hours earlier, things had looked very different. We had been tracking several Atlantic storms, and finally Tropical Storm Nate was forecast to make landfall in the Gulf of Mexico as a category 2 hurricane. I've never paid that much attention to tropical storms in the past, but it turns out that storm-monitoring is surprisingly addictive. Tropical disturbances in the Atlantic often start out near the coast of Africa, and then they crawl across the ocean to the west, growing or petering out as they go. The storms move at about 15 mph, so they'd lose a race to any half-decent cyclist. That gives the nascent addict many happy days of monitoring storm strength and direction. There are also exciting milestones such as the day the storm is given its name, and most important of all, the day the maximum sustained winds first reach 74 mph and the storm is declared to have graduated to hurricane status. Most storms don't make it that far. If they drift too far north, they get broken up or run out of fuel, and they can be decapitated by high-level winds, never giving them a chance to grow.

noaa goes floater satellite image nate

Satellite image captured 09-sep-2011

Tropical Storm Nate was interesting because it had skipped the slog across the Atlantic ocean, and had instead formed entirely inside the Gulf of Mexico, stuck in the gap between the Yucatan and the rest of Mexico. It was pootling westwards at only 3 or 4 miles an hour, feeding off the nice warm bath it was trapped in, and forecast to hit the Mexican coastline near Veracruz as a category 2 hurricane. We thought that we finally had a winner, and off we went.

The five of us arrived in Veracruz in the dark, only 18 hours before the centre of the storm was due to hit the coastline. It was horribly hot and sticky, and the evening gloom made everything feel very ominous. The wind was picking up and we were excited and a bit nervous about what would happen in the morning.

What happened was that we learned that Tropical Storm Nate had apparently become "disorganized" overnight. I've got friends like that, but I wasn't expecting it from a giant atmospheric whirlpool. Josh Wurman (our hurricane expert) inspected the satellite images on his computer screen and made "meh" noises whenever the director asked him where exactly the storm had gone.

GOES-13 satellite image nate sep 12

This visible image from the GOES-13 satellite on Sept. 12 at 10:45 a.m. EDT shows Nate's remnant clouds southwestern Mexico and moving into the eastern Pacific Ocean. Credit: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

The tight spiral that we had seen the previous day had widened, split and was indeed looking pretty disorganized. It rained hard for a couple of hours that morning, so we did film some nasty weather, but soon the sun and the butterflies came out again. We stared at the flat calm ocean and wondered whether to blame the butterflies for flapping their wings.

In our absence, of course, the remnants of Hurricane Katia were passing over Scotland. The winds in Scotland this weekend reached twice the speeds we saw in Mexico. We are not bitter about this. Honest. We had all thought that filming a hurricane would be much easier than filming a tornado, just because hurricanes last for weeks and their tracks can now be predicted very accurately. But we learnt the hard way that the complications of our atmosphere are still not perfectly understood, and that even a large storm can vanish almost overnight if the conditions are right. But still, it's all part of experiencing the weather, and I'm actually quite glad that the town where we were was able to have a normal Monday morning, rather than dealing with the damage and flooding that a hurricane would have left behind.


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