Tropical storms and hurricanes and how they affect your gardens and properties

Last month I discussed the forecast for the Atlantic tropical season and pointed out that it is likely to be an active one. As I write this, there has already been one named storm (Alberto, which went into Mexico but dropped a lot of rain in southern Texas) and two more areas of potential development are moving their way through the Atlantic (note TS Beryl formed on Friday, June 28 at 11 pm after this was written). Hurricane season has begun! This month I will discuss what a tropical storm is and how they form into hurricanes. I will end by discussing how tropical storms and hurricanes impact gardens and what you can do to prepare for them.

Epilobium canum “Hurricane Point” in Clovis Botanical Garden, Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz

Where do tropical storms and hurricanes form?

While we think of hurricanes as hitting the southeastern part of the United States, they are actually much more widespread than that. The map below shows that tropical storms can form in both hemispheres and affect every continent except for Antarctica. Here in the United States we see them most often over the Atlantic Ocean but can experience storms on the west coast from time to time as well. The storms are not always called hurricanes, they can be called typhoons in the Western Pacific and cyclones in the Indian Ocean and Australia. To be considered a hurricane or one of these other storms they have to record a sustained wind speed of 74 mph or higher. Storms in the United States that are stronger than that are classified by the Saffir-Simpson scale into categories 1 through 5 depending on how strong the winds are. And of course the wind gusts in the storms can be quite a bit higher than the sustained winds, they are just more localized and last for only short periods.

Global hurricane track climatology. Source: NASA Space Observatory.

What ingredients are needed for a tropical storm or hurricane to form?

The prerequisite conditions for hurricanes are: warm, deep ocean waters (greater than 80°F / 27°C), an atmosphere cooling rapidly with altitude, moist middle layers of the atmosphere, low wind shear, and a pre-existing near surface region of low pressure in the surface environment. But you might have noticed from the map that even if these conditions are in place a tropical cyclone is not likely to form if it is not at least 300 or so miles from the equator. This is because of the Coriolis force which acts on moving air on a rotating planet to push air to the right of the original direction of movement in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. Low pressure draws air into the circulation, but the Coriolis force helps it to spin up into a storm with a defined circulation.

The seeds of low pressure where storms form can come from atmospheric waves moving east to west off of Africa, sometimes from stalled fronts over the Gulf of Mexico or along the East Coast of the United States. These usually provide the initial trigger of storm development. But not all waves or fronts can develop into cyclones if the other conditions are not right. The location of typical development depends on the time of year, with early and late storms developing closer to the United States and most storms in the peak period from mid-August to mid-October forming from waves coming off the west coast of Africa.

You might wonder why there are almost no tropical storms in the southeastern Pacific or in the southern Atlantic Ocean. That is because the water is normally too cold to sustain storm development. Since ocean temperatures are warming over time we could see more storms there in the future, especially in the South Atlantic where temperatures are already warmer than the SE Pacific. The tropical season could also become longer as the ocean warms up to 80 F earlier in the year in the future.

Bermuda high and tropical storm tracks. Source: Accuweather.

Tropical storms and hurricanes move under the influence of winds midway up in the atmosphere which push along the core of the storm as it is growing or weakening. The stronger the core of the storm, the closer the link between the large-scale atmospheric pattern and the storm movement. In the map above you can see that most storms move in a curving pattern that begins in the east near the equator and moves west over time before recurving to the northeast in a clockwise manner. This pattern is caused by subtropical high pressure, called the “Bermuda High”, over the Atlantic but by other names in other parts of the world. The path of each storm is unique due to the weather pattern present at the time of the storm, and sometimes they can take some crazy paths if the weather pattern is unusual.

How do tropical storms become hurricanes?

Usually, a wave of low pressure over the ocean pulls in air towards the center to reduce the pressure gradient. As the air moves in, the Coriolis force causes it to start spinning. In the Northern Hemisphere this spin is counterclockwise. The air above the surface circulation starts to flow out of the storm and drops the pressure at the surface causing the storm to intensify as air rises near the center of the storm. This continues as long as there is a source of energy (warm water) below it and there is no jet stream high up in the atmosphere to disrupt the development of the circulation. When the sustained wind speed reaches 74 mph its designation is changed from Tropical Storm to Hurricane and it stays that way until the wind speed drops as the storm weakens over land or colder water.

What impacts do tropical cyclones have on gardens and what can you do to prepare?

Tropical systems have a variety of impacts depending on where they are and how strong they are. Thoughtful gardeners will consider all the risks that severe weather can have on their gardens and get ready long before the storms hit. The strong and gusty winds are the most apparent impact; they can cause damage to trees, buildings, and plants and can cause significant damage to gardens. It’s a good idea to walk through your property periodically to look for dead or diseased limbs that could become airborne missiles in strong winds (whether or not they are from a hurricane). Decorative items and furniture left outside can damage tree trunks as well as houses and gardens when they become wind-borne. So if a storm is imminent, scout your property to remove anything that could be potentially hazardous.

Another important impact is flooding rain. The amount of rain that falls from a hurricane depends in part on how fast it is moving, since a slow-moving storm can drop more rain on a particular spot than one that is moving through quickly. The storm does not have to be strong to produce a lot of rain either—some of the weaker storms have been great rain-makers. And it does not even need to be an organized storm. Wet tropical systems that are not fully organized into storms have the potential to produce flooding rain, as we saw in southern Florida just a couple of weeks ago with over 20 inches of rain in some locations. The remains of hurricanes can also cause floods far inland, especially if there are mountains to help the air rise. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 had damage from the Caribbean all the way to Canada because of the torrential rains that fell along the Appalachian Mountains as it moved north. Gardeners who live in areas where flooding is likely should plan ahead to divert rain into rain gardens away from their planting beds to reduce erosion and keep soil from becoming saturated.

Hurricane Ivan, 2004. Source: NOAA.

Hurricanes can also cause other impacts too, especially if you are near the coast. Storm surge can drive sea levels up to 25 feet above mean sea level as the water builds a dome under the area of lowest pressure that moves along with the storm until it makes landfall. If you are in a coastal area, you need to consider what the elevations of your land and house are so you know how much the water might rise in a strong storm. Another impact is the strong storms that can occur in the spiral bands outside the main circulation. These storms can hold weak tornadoes as well as heavy rain and gusty winds. In Hurricane Ivan in 2004, we had a tornado in Athens GA at the same time that the main storm was making landfall along the coast several hundred miles away.

As gardeners, it is important to keep in mind that tropical storms and hurricanes are not all bad. The rain that comes from these storms may include 30-40 percent of the summer rain that is expected to fall in a tropical area, and if few storms come, drought is more likely.  But the damage is also like to stress your gardens (not to mention the gardeners!), so learning more about these storms and planning ahead to prepare for the damage they might bring is a good thing for every home owner in an area prone to tropical activity to do now, before the storms come.

Trees on the levee along the Mississippi River bend over as the high winds from Hurricane Gustav pass over the Carville-St. Gabriel area in south central Louisiana. Source: US Army,

The truth is out there – you just need to know where to look. Part 1 – navigating the informational swamp

Good and good for you!

It’s been 20 years since I began my Extension position at Washington State University. During that time, I’ve tackled gardening myths and produced peer-reviewed fact sheets and manuals through our Extension Publications department. But because of the way that Google searches work, these resources are often buried far beneath the glitzy but fact-free websites promoting bad science. This month I’ll be shining a spotlight on some publications that are must-reads for those who wish to use science-based information in their garden and landscape activities.

If the sheer vastness of the online swamp of information horrifies you, there’s no better place to start than with our Scientific Literacy manual. This publication, coauthored with Dr. Catherine Daniels, introduces you to the CRAP (Credibility, Relevance, Accuracy, Purpose) analysis of information from any source. As the abstract states, this publication helps you “to distinguish science from pseudoscience and can help avoid wasting time, money, and resources on poor ideas or, worse, scams.”

With the CRAP analysis techniques under your belt, you will appreciate our fact sheets debunking some of the “plausible nonsense” force-fed to gardeners (and by extension their plants and soils). The use of Epsom salt in the garden is one of the biggest fact-free nostrums out there. Our Epsom Salt fact sheet, coauthored by Rich Guggenheim, outlines what misapplication of Epsom salt will do to your garden soils and the news is not good.

Right up there with Epsom salt is gypsum, another popular soil amendment with many purported benefits. While gypsum can alleviate problems in heavily used agricultural soils, it has little to no benefit when applied to gardens and landscapes. Our Gypsum fact sheet, also coauthored by Rich Guggenheim, will tell all!

Proper soil nutrient management depends on your gardening goal.

Since we’re discussing chemicals that are added to soils, I’ll refer you to another article written by Dr. Jim Downer and myself. Soil myth-busting for Extension educators – reviewing the literature on soil nutrition is a peer-reviewed publication in the Journal of NACAA. In this article we discuss address “six common misperceptions about managing soil nutrition in nonagricultural situations.” And yes, two of these misperceptions are the routine use of gypsum and Epsom salt.

Scooby Doo and the gang tackled the Swamp Monster – you can too!

I invite you to use the methods in our scientific literacy manual to debunk claims you read or hear about soil amendments. Knowledge is power and you can become a gardening superhero by helping fight the gardening swill that fills the informational swamp.

Next month I’ll continue the “truth series” with a look at some of our publications on garden practices we believe to be true…but aren’t based on science. In the meantime, here a couple of related blog posts that you might enjoy:

I do my version of the shame list with the “Dirty Dozen Garden Products.” Not only is this a good reviews of things that don’t belong on your garden soils, but there’s a fun quiz to see how your stack up with science.

This post on “Garden Logic” links up nicely with our discussion of CRAP analysis. Find out why we tend to jump to conclusions about what we see in the garden, regardless on whether it’s evidence-based or not.

Stay tuned for next month!

Don’t be a Horticultural Hot Mess: Climate-Smart Gardening Practices

While there are still doubters out there mostly thanks to politics, it is pretty clear that the climate is changing and humans are affecting the speed at which it is occurring. The number of record-breaking temperatures and the shift in the USDA hardiness zones show the current effects of this change that will affect almost all parts of our lives, including gardening. What may be less apparent to folks is shifting weather patterns and the increased incidences of extreme weather. Just ask farmers about the weather and they can tell you how extreme weather has gotten. The funny thing is that while many farmers may doubt the existence of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, research has show that they believe that weather has gotten worse and that they change their practices and livelihoods to cope with those changes. So as gardeners we can also adjust our practices to deal with the changes as well.

I live in Omaha, Nebraska and we definitely have seen this uptick in extreme weather events this year. From over a dozen tornado touchdowns during the afternoon of Arbor Day (some friends and I got to shelter in place at a warehouse box store for a few hours that day) in a system that had 145 tornadoes across the Midwest. May 2023 was the driest month on record with just 0.17” of rain, feeding the already severe drought in the area. On the other hand, May 2024 was the second wettest May and the eight wettest May on record with 11.14” of rain – the amount that we would normally expect to receive between January 1 and June1 in any given year.

Tornado outbreak of April 26–28, 2024 - Wikipedia
There were 145 tornadoes tracked between April 26 & 28, 2024.

As gardeners we should consider both the long-term implications climate change and the short-term weather extremes that it brings and what sort of mitigation strategies may be needed. And while the individual effect of practices to reduce or sequester greenhouse gas emissions might be minimal, if many people practice climate-smart gardening there could be a small impact – every little bit helps.

Mitigating practices for climate-smart gardening

At this point the change is already happening, so it is wise to think about what practices we need to adopt in the garden to deal with current weather pattern changes and the overall changes of the climate such as increased heat and changing precipitation (some places get less, some places get more). Here are some things to think about:

Plant climate-resilient plants

The advice I often see is that gardeners should “just plant natives,” but it isn’t really as simple as that. Yes, native plants are adapted to the current environment of the area, but will they necessarily be adaptable when that environment changes? The native range for many plants, namely cold intolerant ones, will expand as more areas warm. But some plants can’t take the heat. Changing weather patterns also means that areas may become drier or wetter which could affect what grows successfully in an area. To add to this double whammy, most gardeners are planting in urban areas that have been drastically altered from the local native habitat in terms of soil, temperature, water, and more which may make conditions less favorable for native plants. It isn’t guaranteed that what grows as native today will survive in tomorrow’s climate.

It is best to take a blended approach – incorporating native plants that are likely to do well in evolving climate conditions and adding introduced plants from areas similar to what the climate is changing toward. Also keep in mind that many plants, especially fruit trees, require a certain amount of cold weather, referred to as chill hours. These requirements make it difficult, if not impossible, to grow many cultivars of fruits like apples, pears, plums, and blueberries in southern Florida, Texas, and California. As temperatures rise, the areas that struggle to grow these fruits will expand. It is even difficult to grow crops like tomatoes in some of these areas because extreme heat sterilizes pollen and slows fruit maturation. Resilient gardeners may have to turn to climate resilient (heat tolerant) vegetable cultivars in the future.

Chilling Hours: between 35°F and 45°F, Oct. 1 start
Source: Midwestern Regional Climate Center

different fruit and nut tree species ...

Source: Climate change trends and impacts on California agriculture: a detailed review

Improve Soil Health

Healthy, organic-matter rich soil retains water better and supports plant nutrition. Supporting plant health makes them better able to grow when environmental conditions aren’t exactly perfect. Soil organic matter collects and holds water over long periods, making it available to plants longer term if conditions become dry. It can also aid in drainage if conditions become wetter. Increase organic matter through the application of mulches and composts. In vegetable gardens, cover crops can also be an effective means of adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil.

Water Management

Aside from building soil health to retain water, using mulch to reduce evaporation can also effectively improve water management. Organic mulches also help reduce and moderate soil temperatures, which is important especially during extreme heat periods.

Using effective and efficient irrigation can also help keep plants healthy while reducing water usage. Many perennial plants adapted to current environmental conditions (whether they are native or not) can survive without large amounts of water input during normal periods of precipitation. However, during extreme heat or drought even low-water plants may need supplemental water. Most all plants also need supplemental water for the first few weeks or months after planting until they are established.

Create Microclimates

It is a fairly common practice to create microclimates to protect tender plants in cold weather, such as planting near walls or using protective structures like low tunnels or high tunnels for vegetables and fruits. As temperatures rise gardeners may need to consider creating microclimates to protect plants from heat or extreme conditions like wind. The use of shade cloth or shady areas, trellises, and wind breaks can help protect from extreme temperatures, harsh winds, or excessive sun exposure.

File:烏來生態農場溫室草莓.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Shade structures to reduce heat. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Planting Adaptations

Aside from changing what is planted, when things are planted might also need to change. Planting times for vegetables, fruits, and annuals will likely shift earlier, especially in areas with extreme heat that would negatively effect plants.

Promote Biodiversity

Planting a variety of plants, both native and introduced, will be helpful if the environment becomes unsuitable for certain species. That way, you haven’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Biodiversity will also support wildlife and insect populations that will also be effected by the changing climate. Having a variety of plants for food and shelter will be paramount for supporting pollinators, songbirds, and other species.

Can you effect climate change from your garden?

Like I said earlier, individual garden practices would likely have little effect on slowing climate change, but if lots of gardeners change practices there could be an effect, even if it is somewhat minimal. Every little bit helps. I left extension back in October to work for a company that supports farmers in conservation and climate-smart practices that add carbon to the soil and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The effect of an individual farmer would be minimal, but working with hundreds or thousands of farmers and hundreds of thousands of acres of crops can have at least some impact.

So what can you do as a gardener? The thing that most people think about is reduced usage of power equipment that relies on gas or diesel. While electric and battery tools rely on the electric grid that still uses fossil fuels, as the grid continues to add renewable and sustainable energy sources the carbon footprint will continue to shrink.

But one of the best things gardeners can do goes back to soil health. Organic matter build up in the soil sequesters carbon. Therefore practices that add organic matter to the soil can also have an impact on greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Adding organic matter is a starting point, but you want to make sure it stays there. In annual production systems like in vegetable gardens, tillage promotes the decomposition of organic matter which releases the carbon back into the atmosphere. Minimizing soil disturbance by adopting no-till practices is a key step gardeners can take to reduce their carbon footprint (and positively effect soil health). Eliminating soil disturbance when establishing new perennial beds is also beneficial, but perennial plantings, especially trees, are great at sequestering carbon deep in to the soil for the long-term.