All Weather News

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a…Medicane?

10 Nov 2014, 10:20 am

It might sound like a sugary government snack or a little-known medical term. So what exactly is a ‘medicane’, and how did it produce wind gusts near 100 miles-an-hour in Europe this week?

In short, a medicane is a semi-tropical cyclone in the Mediterranean Sea, and it contains both tropical and subtropical elements – think of a hybrid of a hurricane and a nor’easter. The term ‘medicane’ comes from the Mediterranean Sea, where these systems occur, and the hurricane-like appearance that these systems often acquire when fully mature. A particularly strong medicane blew through the zigzag-shaped body of water separating Africa and Europe last week, and a wind gust of 96 mph was recorded in the island nation of Malta as a result.

The same system hit the Italian island of Sicily hard on Friday, knocking down trees and producing tropical-storm force winds there as well. The remnants of the system moved into the Balkans region of southeastern Europe (Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria) and mostly dissipated on Saturday after the system moved onshore.

But aside from wind gust impacts, the most impressive feature of these systems are their near-identical appearance to hurricanes despite containing a different meteorological origin. Take a look at a satellite image of Friday’s medicane, courtesy of NASA:

Screen Shot 2014-11-08 at 7.26.50 PM

The swirl and even eye-like feature in the center of the storm is typically only found in mature tropical cyclones like hurricanes. The strongest of nor’easters and mid-latitude cyclones can develop similar features to tropical cyclones, but rarely, if ever, will they develop an eye and such close resemblance to a hurricane. But make no mistake about it: medicanes are not hurricanes. In fact, they have a completely different fuel creating and charging them.

The sea-surface temperatures in the Mediterranean are typically too cold to support full-fledged tropical cyclones; full tropical systems usually need temperatures of at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit to develop and/or sustain them, but with average temperatures hovering around 70 degrees in the Mediterranean, the sea is simply too cold to develop fully tropical systems. But with a combination of low wind shear (just like tropical systems) and cold air aloft, medicanes can develop and pack quite the punch, as shown last week. These systems are far rarer to develop than tropical systems in the Atlantic – you may see one or two develop in the Mediterranean every year – but when they do develop, as one did last week, look out.

Have a great day!

Meteorologist Chris Bianchi

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