The SCW Q&A: Eclipsing, hurricane vs. typhoon, climate changed, thunder calc, bad forecasts!

In this second edition of our new Q&A feature, Eric and Matt tackle an excellent set of questions from you, our most excellent readers.

We do this monthly, and if you’re dying to know something weather- or SCW-related, leave us a comment here or on our many, many social channels – Facebook, Instagram, Threads, X/Twitter, Mastodon, Bluesky (we’re everywhere!) – or hit the Feedback button in the blog’s sidebar.

Let’s get to it.

Q: What does the forecast look like for the solar eclipse on April 8?

A. We have received more questions about the total solar eclipse next month than almost anything that I can remember. And for good reason, it is going to be spectacular—very likely the most dramatic celestial event that most all of us will see in our lifetimes. I cannot wait.

However, in regard the forecast we need to exercise a little bit of patience. Unless we see a very strong signal for high pressure over the state of Texas, confidently forecasting clear or partially clear skies is not something that can be done too far in advance. I plan to make an initial forecast next Thursday, and then we’ll provide regular guidance after that.

– Eric

A preview of things to come: The 2017 total solar eclipse as seen from Casper, Wyoming, by a team of European Space Agency astronomers. (Credit: ESA)

Q: I’ve been noticing that the term hurricane and typhoon are being used interchangeably and frequently by weather forecasters – both on tv and in the paper. I don’t recall this happening in the recent past. Why is this happening and do the terms mean the same thing?

A: The answer depends on where they’re talking about. No, really. Both terms describe the same phenomenon: What we call a hurricane, folks in East Asia call a typhoon. According to the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology, the word “typhoon” originates either from Cantonese (t’ai fung: “great wind”), Arabic (tufan: “smoke”), or Greek (typhon: “monster”). Aristotle described it as such in his text Meteorologica to mean a wind-containing cloud. You can read more about the etymology (and debate) of “typhoon’s” origins on the Wiki page.

Meanwhile, “hurricane” probably derives from “Hurakan,” the Mayan god of wind, storm, and fire. The thought is that the indigenous Taino peoples told Columbus and other Spaniards of this deity, and the name became associated and stuck to what we call hurricanes today.

If you travel to the Indian Ocean or Australia, these storms will be referenced as “cyclones.” I was taught in grade school that Aussies referred to them as “willy willys.” That is not the case. “Willy willy” actually refers to a dust devil which is like a miniature tornado that can form in clear weather (another topic for another day).

But, the bottom line: Hurricane, typhoon, cyclone, tropical cyclone, cyclonic storm are all basically interchangeable at the highest level. Hearing it called one of those names can narrow down for you where it actually occurred. There are occasionally other regional references you may hear, such as “Medicane,” which is essentially a Mediterranean version of a hurricane.

– Matt

Q. In southeast Texas, how has the climate changed over the last 10,000 years? Was this area drier, wetter, more trees, more prairie? How did this effect how people lived?

A. The Texas State Historical Association has a great website with answers to questions like this. I encourage you to visit there for the full details. But the big picture is that 10,000 years ago Texas (and the rest of the present-day United States) were emerging from the last great ice age. At that time, when glaciers reached their greatest extent, average temperatures were 10 to 15 degrees cooler than today. But by 10,000 years ago things were getting back closer to what conditions were like today, although Texas has steadily gotten a bit warmer and drier over recent millennia.

As for how people lived in Houston, how did they do it without air conditioning?

– Eric

Q: When you hear thunder, sometimes it sounds like it is right over you and other times it seems far away. As a meteorologist, are you able to point/pinpoint a specific area in the sky where the thunder is coming from?

A: So the first question to ask is “what is thunder?” Thunder is the audible response you hear when lightning heats and expands the air around the bolt. Remember, lightning is hot, with a temperature in the bolt of up to 50,000°F, almost as hot as last summer in Houston. Just kidding. Sort of. One reason the thunder sounds like it may be right over you is because it could literally be right over you, or at least nearby. In that case, you’re hearing the thunder “right over you” because the lightning strike occurred within a mile or less of your location. I’ve found that usually the loudest thunder I hear is when lightning hits within about a half-mile or so of where I am.

Now, there are other possible reasons for really loud thunder when lightning is nowhere near you. If we have an inversion in place in the atmosphere, or when it’s actually warmer above our heads than at the ground, sometimes those sound waves from the thunder can propagate farther along or just have more impact. So lightning can strike miles away, yet you still hear loud thunder.

Map of lightning strikes on July 28, 2020, in the Houston area. Yikes! (

So, like anything, it’s complicated! Everything from the air temperature at the ground to the air temperature a few thousand feet up can impact the sound of thunder. Fortunately, we are blanketed with lightning detection sensors today, so we almost always know where lightning strikes or comes from in near-real time. And there’s always the Lightning Distance Calculator. But just remember, if you can hear thunder, it’s time to get inside!

– Matt

Q. Why are models and meteorologists so bad at predicting rain? Apps always say its going to rain and not a drop. This has been happening in the past three years. Something is off.

A. And I took that personally. Seriously, I share your frustrations. A big part of it is that rain can be a very localized phenomenon. Pure misery is watching a radar app during a drought and hopefully seeing heavy showers in the next neighborhood over, but they stop half a mile from your location. Well, guess what, a forecast for rain showers verified for that neighborhood, but failed for yours. Imagine the challenge for us when we must forecast rain chances for a metro area 100 miles across, with varied climates from the coast the piney woods. And all you want to know is whether it will rain at your house.

That’s why you’ll often see a 30 percent chance of rain or a 50 percent chance, or whatever. That means that, for a given forecast area, the percentage of that area expected to see rain—it could be a sprinkle or a deluge—is 30 or 50. It’s a probabilistic answer because we cannot tell you definitively that it will rain. (Except during Hurricane Harvey, of course. One could confidently predict a 100 percent chance of rain at that time).

There are other factors: Even high resolution models cannot account for the physical processes that occur on a small scale, of a few miles or less, that determine whether rain showers develop or dissipate. Finally, it does not help that there are no regular, local weather balloons in Houston.

– Eric

8 thoughts on “The SCW Q&A: Eclipsing, hurricane vs. typhoon, climate changed, thunder calc, bad forecasts!”

  1. One more question… In Western Massachusetts, we have been hit by what locally are called “bomb cyclones“ just wondering what that means…

  2. What’s keeping Houston (or College Station) from having a weather balloon (or four) all these years later? (That linked article is 2017). Seems there is enough big-money private industry in the region reliant on accurate weather forecasting that would sponsor them if it’s a $$ issue.


  3. Thank you for doing the Q&A! I love Space City Weather! Question about your answer above – I’m confused by the description of what “percent chance of rain” represents. I was taught in my meteorology classes that probability of precipitation in weather forecasts means the probabilistic chance that it will rain at the point specified in a given time period. For example, if I enter my zip code to get a National Weather Service forecast for my area today, a 40% chance of rain means each point within my zip code has a 40% chance of seeing rain, not that 40% of the land area within my zip has a chance of seeing rain. Insights? Or is this just splitting hairs? Thanks

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