Florence began humbly. It was born off the West Coast of Africa on September 1, 2018 as a little cluster of thunderstorms. Within a short time, this weather system had stolen enough energy from the ocean to reach tropical storm strength. It would go on to blow through the Atlantic for two whole weeks, wreaking havoc on the Carolinas. In the end, it ranked as one of the year’s longest-lived cyclones.
The National Hurricane Center is in Miami, Fla. On September 3, its meteorologists first talked of the storm’s potential to strengthen rapidly. What does that mean? Its rotating winds would have to increase in one day by 55.5 kilometers (34.5 miles) per hour.
Scientists suspected Florence would do this because the cyclone was going to move into a region where winds in the upper atmosphere were weak. That would keep them from tearing apart the fledgling storm. Temperatures at the sea surface also were unusually warm. This provided lots of water vapor. That’s the ideal fuel for strengthening a storm. In automotive terms, the atmosphere was all gas and no brakes.
However, the cyclone also had been moving through a region with strong wind shear before this. The speed and direction of those turbulent spinning winds can change abruptly with height. Such shearing winds risked pulling Florence apart. So at one point, Florence looked like it might peter out as a little more than a hurricane wannabe.
Instead, the Category 1 storm explosively powered up on September 4, just as the hurricane center had predicted. The once infantile storm strengthened into a Category 4 within just one day. Winds now swirled around its core at 209 kilometers (130 miles) per hour. And then, just as suddenly, Florence appeared to fall apart. It was downgraded to a tropical storm on September 7.
But air to the west of this storm was a powder keg of energy. And a weirdly shaped system of high air pressure known as the “Bermuda High” remained parked over the central Atlantic. It acted as a guardrail that steered the storm into a mass of super-moist air. (Scientists joked that this air was “juicy.”)
Once more, the storm speedily strengthened. By September 9, Florence was back to a Category 4. And now its winds were howling at a whopping 225 kilometers (140 miles) per hour.
Such rapid strengthening of hurricanes seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. This happened to storms in the past. But now it seems to be occurring much more frequently. Last year’s Hurricane Harvey was such a storm. Weeks later, Hurricane Irma revved up into one, too. And in a two-day period in September 2017, Maria blossomed from a mere tropical storm into a Category 5 beast.
Researchers are exploring what’s behind such rapidly strengthening cyclones. Some have begun to suspect that our warming climate may play a role.
Why storm behaviors are so hard to predict
The National Hurricane Center is responsible for studying all Atlantic cyclones. Its scientists coordinate with governments and others across the Caribbean and the entire Atlantic basin. And if there’s anything that all these experts have learned, it’s that it is very hard to forecast hurricanes well.
But that hasn’t stopped meteorologists from trying — and succeeding. They’ve learned that collecting huge masses of real-time storm data is key.
Their work starts when satellite images pinpoint a disorganized blob of shower and thunderstorm activity somewhere in the middle Atlantic between 10 and 25 degrees north latitude. The hurricane center dispatches expert pilots and meteorologists to take a look. They team up with the U.S. Air Force to fly specially equipped turboprop planes into the storm. These airborne storm chasers will brave winds exceeding 290 kilometers (180 miles) per hour to track a cyclone’s behavior and path.
Instruments on board send back readings of temperature, wind speed, wind direction, humidity and air pressure. With these data, the storm experts start to explore the chance these thundershowers will grow into a system that could eventually grow into a hurricane. And they will continue to track a storm’s evolving traits throughout its life.
Meteorologists are trained as atmospheric physicists. They use computers and complex math to describe — and then probe — the movement of gases and water droplets in the atmosphere.
In Miami, the hurricane center’s meteorologists use the data collected directly inside and outside of a storm. They’ll pump some of these data into computer models. These will process billions of data points in a far shorter time than it would take people to crunch all of those numbers.
Forecasters use the computer-processed real-time data and observations to make an educated guess about how the storm will behave within the next few hours to days. Where will it go? How strong will it be? Accuracy matters when countless lives and billions of dollars worth of property may be at stake.
Scientists have a pretty good idea where a cyclone will move over the next half day. Its predicted path will tend to be off by no more than about 47 kilometers (30 miles). But as forecasts move further into the future, their predictions become much less certain.
Five days out, a storm’s projected path could be off by some 350 kilometers (220 miles). Or it could be fairly accurate. The five-day forecast of Florence’s landfall, for instance, was off by only 24 kilometers (15 miles).
Behaviors that affect a cyclone’s power are harder to predict. One reason: They can be greatly affected by what’s happening in the upper atmosphere. That’s a region scientists’ tools cannot easily observe. Experts have therefore turned to computers, asking them to “model” what they think occurs there.
But those models sometimes fall short. For instance, they don’t show precisely how air exits the eye of a hurricane to flow over and out of a storm. Yet what happens in that zone may affect how quickly a cyclone’s speed ramps up.
Getting a better understanding of rapidly strengthening storms could help in forecasting most intense hurricanes. That’s because the strongest cyclones are likely to undergo such a rapid supercharging. This was the conclusion of a 2016 study in Nature Communications.
Chia-Ying Lee led it. She’s a climate modeler at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. That’s at Columbia University in Palisades, N.Y. Her team looked at all major cyclones across the globe between 1981 and 2012. They found that nearly eight in every 10 major cyclones now strengthen rapidly at least once in a storm’s lifetime.
The potential role of a warming change
Some scientists think that climate change will make this behavior even more common. Among them is Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. He suspects future Atlantic hurricanes will become increasingly dangerous.
His own analyses, he has written, suggest that over the next 80 years, the share of storms “that intensify rapidly just before landfall could increase substantially.”
There is science to support why that makes sense.
Rivers of air in the upper atmosphere blow from west to east. Known as jet streams, they form at the boundary between warm and cold air.
Dry air heats up faster than moist air. This explains why the dry air at Earth’s poles has been warming faster than at the equator. That unequal warming can slow the jet stream. Such a slowing, in turn, tends to weaken steering currents within the jet — those winds that push weather systems.
Weaker steering currents could impact how quickly a hurricane moves. If one lingers over an area of very warm water, it now risks strengthening explosively, Emanuel observes.
Because such a rapid revving up of a cyclone’s speed is difficult to forecast, he says there is a risk that in the future, many hurricanes could make landfall with little long-term warning to affected communities. And this, he adds, could lead “to higher rates of injury and death.”
However, scientists are not yet certain of any of this. Records of storms date back to the 1800s. However, satellites have only been watching hurricanes for the past several decades. Today they allow meteorologists to watch less-powerful tropical systems in remote areas that people likely would have missed in the past. And that makes it tough to know for sure how many storms spun up in years before today’s accurate detection methods. So while some scientists assert that the overall number of storms is increasing, it’s impossible to know for sure. That complicates issues surrounding research into the rapid strengthening of cyclones.
In the future, will more storms rapidly rev up to become whoppers? We’ll just have to wait and see. And, of course, keep studying the details of how and where they develop.
air pressure The force exerted by the weight of air molecules.
Atlantic One of the world’s five oceans, it is second in size only to the Pacific. It separates Europe and Africa to the east from North and South America to the west.
atmosphere The envelope of gases surrounding Earth or another planet.
average (in science) A term for the arithmetic mean, which is the sum of a group of numbers that is then divided by the size of the group.
behavior The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.
Caribbean The name of a sea that runs from the Atlantic Ocean in the East to Mexico and Central American nations in the West, and from the southern coasts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico down to the northern coasts of Venezuela and Brazil. The term is also used to refer to the culture of nations that border on or are islands in the sea.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
climate change Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
computer model A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.
core Something — usually round-shaped — in the center of an object. (in geology) Earth’s innermost layer. Or, a long, tube-like sample drilled down into ice, soil or rock. Cores allow scientists to examine layers of sediment, dissolved chemicals, rock and fossils to see how the environment at one location changed through hundreds to thousands of years or more.
current A fluid — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction.
cyclone A strong, rotating vortex, usually made of wind. Notable examples include a tornado or hurricane.
data Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.
develop To emerge or come into being, either naturally or through human intervention, such as by manufacturing.
equator An imaginary line around Earth that divides Earth into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
force Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.
humidity A measure of the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. (Air with a lot of water vapor in it is known as humid.)
hurricane A tropical cyclone that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and has winds of 119 kilometers (74 miles) per hour or greater. When such a storm occurs in the Pacific Ocean, people refer to it as a typhoon.
ingest To take in as if to eat. (in biology) To eat or deliberately bring nutrients into the body by mouth for digestion in the gut.
jet stream A fast-flowing, high-altitude air current. On Earth, the major jet streams flow from west to east in the mid-latitude regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
link A connection between two people or things.
meteorologist Someone who studies weather and climate events.
mid-latitudes That part of the globe that lies midway between Earth’s tropical and polar regions. Most people live in these temperate regions and most of the world’s food is produced here.
model A simulation of a real-world event (usually using a computer) that has been developed to predict one or more likely outcomes. Or an individual that is meant to display how something would work in or look on others.
phenomenon Something that is surprising or unusual.
physicist A scientist who studies the nature and properties of matter and energy.
poles (in Earth science and astronomy) The cold regions of the planet that exist farthest from the equator; the upper and lower ends of the virtual axis around which a celestial object rotates.
pressure Force applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.
real time A term that connotes immediacy; something is being studied, recorded and/or reported at the very time it is happening.
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
satellite A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
sea An ocean (or region that is part of an ocean). Unlike lakes and streams, seawater — or ocean water — is salty.
technology The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.
trait A characteristic feature of something.
turbulence The chaotic, swirling flow of air. Airplanes that run into turbulence high above ground can give passengers a bumpy ride.
water vapor Water in its gaseous state, capable of being suspended in the air.
wave A disturbance or variation that travels through space and matter in a regular, oscillating fashion.
weather Conditions in the atmosphere at a localized place and a particular time. It is usually described in terms of particular features, such as air pressure, humidity, moisture, any precipitation (rain, snow or ice), temperature and wind speed. Weather constitutes the actual conditions that occur at any time and place. It’s different from climate, which is a description of the conditions that tend to occur in some general region during a particular month or season.
Journal: K. Emanuel. Will global warming make hurricane forecasting more difficult? Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. March 2017, p. 495. doi: 10.1175/BAMS-D-16-0134.1.
Journal: C.-Y. Lee et al. Rapid Intensification and the bimodal distribution of tropical cyclone intensity. Nature Communications. Vol. 7, February 3, 2016, Number 10625. doi: 10.1038/ncomms10625.
Website: The jet stream. National Weather Service explainer.