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The Coriolis force causes hurricanes in the northern hemisphere to rotate in the counterclockwise direction, while the tropical cyclones (what hurricanes are called below the equator) in the southern hemisphere rotate in the clockwise direction. The terms hurricane, typhoon, and tropical storm are regionally-specific names for tropical cyclones, storm systems characterized by low pressure centers, strong winds, and heavy rains. [link] helps show how these rotations take place. Air flows toward any region of low pressure, and tropical cyclones contain particularly low pressures. Thus winds flow toward the center of a tropical cyclone or a low-pressure weather system at the surface. In the northern hemisphere, these inward winds are deflected to the right, as shown in the figure, producing a counterclockwise circulation at the surface for low-pressure zones of any type. Low pressure at the surface is associated with rising air, which also produces cooling and cloud formation, making low-pressure patterns quite visible from space. Conversely, wind circulation around high-pressure zones is clockwise in the northern hemisphere but is less visible because high pressure is associated with sinking air, producing clear skies.

The rotation of tropical cyclones and the path of a ball on a merry-go-round can just as well be explained by inertia and the rotation of the system underneath. When non-inertial frames are used, fictitious forces, such as the Coriolis force, must be invented to explain the curved path. There is no identifiable physical source for these fictitious forces. In an inertial frame, inertia explains the path, and no force is found to be without an identifiable source. Either view allows us to describe nature, but a view in an inertial frame is the simplest and truest, in the sense that all forces have real origins and explanations.

Figure a is a satellite photo of a hurricane rotating in counterclockwise direction. Figures b, c, and d are diagrams. In figure b, there are four arrows directed toward a low pressure zone at a point from North, East, West and South. Near each arrow there is a green dotted vector turned toward right at its arrow head which shows the direction of Coriolis force. In figure c, there is a small circle directed counter clockwise over the low pressure zone, which shows that the winds are deflected by Coriolis force. In figure d, a high-pressure zone is shown. Around it there are four green vectors directed toward their right near the arrow head. Figure e is a satellite photo of a tropical cyclone in the southern hemisphere. The direction of this cyclone is clockwise.
(a) The counterclockwise rotation of this northern hemisphere hurricane is a major consequence of the Coriolis force. (credit: NASA) (b) Without the Coriolis force, air would flow straight into a low-pressure zone, such as that found in tropical cyclones. (c) The Coriolis force deflects the winds to the right, producing a counterclockwise rotation. (d) Wind flowing away from a high-pressure zone is also deflected to the right, producing a clockwise rotation. (e) The opposite direction of rotation is produced by the Coriolis force in the southern hemisphere, leading to tropical cyclones. (credit: NASA)

Section summary

  • Rotating and accelerated frames of reference are non-inertial.
  • Fictitious forces, such as the Coriolis force, are needed to explain motion in such frames.

Conceptual questions

When a toilet is flushed or a sink is drained, the water (and other material) begins to rotate about the drain on the way down. Assuming no initial rotation and a flow initially directly straight toward the drain, explain what causes the rotation and which direction it has in the northern hemisphere. (Note that this is a small effect and in most toilets the rotation is caused by directional water jets.) Would the direction of rotation reverse if water were forced up the drain?

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Is there a real force that throws water from clothes during the spin cycle of a washing machine? Explain how the water is removed.

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In one amusement park ride, riders enter a large vertical barrel and stand against the wall on its horizontal floor. The barrel is spun up and the floor drops away. Riders feel as if they are pinned to the wall by a force something like the gravitational force. This is a fictitious force sensed and used by the riders to explain events in the rotating frame of reference of the barrel. Explain in an inertial frame of reference (Earth is nearly one) what pins the riders to the wall, and identify all of the real forces acting on them.

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Action at a distance, such as is the case for gravity, was once thought to be illogical and therefore untrue. What is the ultimate determinant of the truth in physics, and why was this action ultimately accepted?

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Two friends are having a conversation. Anna says a satellite in orbit is in freefall because the satellite keeps falling toward Earth. Tom says a satellite in orbit is not in freefall because the acceleration due to gravity is not 9.80 m/s 2 size 12{"m/s" rSup { size 8{2} } } {} . Who do you agree with and why?

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A non-rotating frame of reference placed at the center of the Sun is very nearly an inertial one. Why is it not exactly an inertial frame?

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Questions & Answers

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Practice Key Terms 4

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Source:  OpenStax, College physics. OpenStax CNX. Jul 27, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11406/1.9
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