Fuel for cyclones: The water vapor budget of a hurricane as dependent on its movement

Anastassia M. Makarieva*, Victor G. Gorshkov, Andrei V. Nefiodov, Alexander V. Chikunov, Douglas Sheil, Antonio Donato Nobre, Bai Lian Li

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

24 Citations (Scopus)


Despite the dangers associated with tropical cyclones and their rainfall, the origin of the moisture in these storms, which include destructive hurricanes and typhoons, remains surprisingly uncertain. Existing studies have focused on the region 40–400 km from a cyclone's center. It is known that the rainfall within this area cannot be explained by local processes alone but requires imported moisture. Nonetheless, the dynamics of this imported moisture appears unknown. Here, considering a region up to three thousand kilometers from cyclone center, we analyze precipitation, atmospheric moisture and movement velocities for severe tropical cyclones – North Atlantic hurricanes. Our findings indicate that even over such large areas a hurricane's rainfall cannot be accounted for by concurrent evaporation. We propose instead that a hurricane consumes pre-existing atmospheric water vapor as it moves. The propagation velocity of the cyclone, i.e. the difference between its movement velocity and the mean velocity of the surrounding air (steering flow), determines the water vapor budget. Water vapor available to the hurricane through its movement makes the hurricane self-sufficient at about 700 km from the hurricane center obviating the need to concentrate moisture from greater distances. Such hurricanes leave a dry wake, whereby rainfall is suppressed by up to 40% compared to the local long-term mean. The inner radius of this dry footprint approximately coincides with the hurricane's radius of water self-sufficiency. We discuss how Carnot efficiency considerations do not constrain the power of such open systems. Our findings emphasize the incompletely understood role and importance of atmospheric moisture stocks and dynamics in the behavior of severe tropical cyclones.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)216-230
Number of pages15
JournalAtmospheric Research
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Condensation
  • Precipitation
  • Tropical cyclones


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