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Watch: NASA uses dust, salt, and smoke to visualize the 2017 hurricane season

The storms churn sea salt up into the air, which NASA can see from space.

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Hurricanes can be hundreds of miles across, with winds whipping fast enough to rival tornadoes. They can sweep across thousands of miles of ocean before winding down.

All this commotion churns up the ocean water, which then injects sea salt into the air in and around the storm.

NASA’s satellites can detect the amount of salt particles in the atmosphere, and then track those particles across the path of the storm. These observations can be factored into a mathematical model to visualize the storms. Here’s the result.

This video is a computer-generated time lapse of the 2017 hurricane season up until November 1, as informed by NASA’s observations of salt and other aerosols, including dust and smoke. It’s beautiful, and a bit terrifying.

You can see how, one by one, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Ophelia, and others from this year’s destructive season in the Atlantic formed, seemingly one right after another. And you can see the Western United States puffing out smoke like a steam engine, a consequence of the particularly bad wildfire season there.

You also can get a glimpse of the complex, frenzied, global nature of hurricane formation. Thunderstorms and dust storms in Africa help seed the low-pressure systems that form hurricanes as they move over warm Atlantic waters.

And there’s even more not pictured. Hurricanes are influenced and steered by massive global trends in weather, such as the warming or cooling of waters in the Pacific (El Niño and La Niña) and patterns like the Madden-Julian oscillation (an eastward-moving weather system that circles the globe every month or so and makes thunderstorms more likely).

Simulations based on this data will help scientists better understand the conditions under which hurricanes form and intensify. And we’ll need that understanding. Because one thing’s for sure: More storms are coming.

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