Weather Lingo: The Brown Ocean Effect

Tropical cyclones are fueled by warm ocean water and typically peter out over land. Sometimes, however, their lives are extended by something called the “brown ocean effect”.

This is a phenomenon where a storm derives energy from the evaporation of abundant soil moisture deposited by previous rainfall. Essentially, the saturated soil mimics the role of the ocean allowing a tropical cyclone to maintain its strength or even intensify after making landfall.

For the brown ocean effect to occur, according to a NASA funded study by Theresa Andersen and Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia, three criteria need to be met:

  • The soil needs to contain copious amounts of moisture.
  • Atmospheric conditions near the ground must have tropical characteristics with minimal variation in temperature.
  • Evaporation rates must be high enough to provide the storm with sufficient latent heat that it uses for fuel, at least 70 watts averaged per square meter.

Although this process supplies less energy than the ocean, it is enough to sustain a storm for a longer period than normal over land. It was first noticed in 2007 after Tropical Storm Erin made landfall in Texas and then intensified as it traveled inland. It formed an eye over Oklahoma and unleashed a massive amount of rainfall.

Storms that are impacted by the brown ocean effect maintain a warm-core and are known as Inland Tropical Cyclone Maintenance and Intensification events (TCMIs). While rare, they are most common in the US, China, and Australia.

Credit: NBC/TWC