When satellites began transmitting images of Hurricane Lee – a massive storm currently moving in the Atlantic – meteorologists knew they were in for a “beast” of a storm.
the wind burst
In 2023, Typhoon Lee is the third typhoon to increase in strength ever recorded. On September 7 alone, the wind speed inside Lee more than doubled, causing it to grow from a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 129 km/h to a Category 5 hurricane with winds of 266 km/h.
These types of explosive rising winds are becoming common in some areas.
The consensus among scientists is that the Earth is warming and will produce more hurricanes. These are “monster” storms that have the ability to double their strength before striking coastal communities.
A study published in August in the journal Nature Shows that within 402 km of the Atlantic coast, the number of rapidly intensifying hurricanes is significantly higher than 40 years ago and is becoming increasingly common.
Examples include Hurricane Ian in 2022 and Hurricane Michael in 2018 – which went from a Category 2 to a Category 5 hurricane in just one day before making landfall in Florida. It killed countless people and caused $25 billion in damage. It’s a meteorologist’s worst nightmare.
The development of any hurricane depends on suitable environmental conditions. If the water in the ocean beneath a storm is warm enough, it will release a large amount of energy when it evaporates, causing lower air pressure and stronger winds.
But what is the difference between a slowly strengthening hurricane and a rapidly strengthening one?
Brian Tang, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany (USA), said: Environmental factors need to evolve at the same time to trigger rapid wind growth.
Just before Typhoon Lee’s sudden eruption, Mr. Tang had a premonition that things were about to escalate due to images of ice crystals and swirling rain water in the storm.
Models such as the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System (HAFS) at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) actually predicted this storm’s rapid intensification by about 24 hours.
More detailed measurements are also helping forecasters. Taking 2018’s Hurricane Michael as an example, a 2020 study found that satellite data and measurements of buoys in the Gulf of Mexico showed that a marine heat wave was underway as the storm approached.
Additionally, researchers are increasingly using drones to fly into the lowest and most dangerous part of a storm, called the boundary layer, to gather useful information about storm intensity.
Ruby Leung, an atmospheric scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, explains that the ocean’s influence on tropical storms can be complex.
For example, if a lot of fresh water from rivers flows into the ocean and creates a layer of warm water above the denser, saltier water below, this can cause storms to become increasingly strong.
In general, storms produce more rain as air temperatures rise, increasing the likelihood of storm intensity, Ms Leung said.
Understanding these environmental nuances will be important, helping scientists better predict increasingly dangerous storms.
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