Hurricane Lee is rewriting the old rules of meteorology, surprising experts by growing to a Category 5 hurricane so quickly.
Experts say Lee quickly downgraded to the still-dangerous Category 3 and maintained that intensity on Saturday, but as ocean temperatures rise, Lee could still be a precursor to a rapidly growing major hurricane that could threaten to communities further north and inland.
“Hurricanees are getting stronger at higher latitudes,” said Marshall Sheppard, director of the Atmospheric Science Program at the University of Georgia and past president of the American Meteorological Society. “If this trend continues, places like Washington, D.C., New York and Boston will come into play.”
As oceans warm, they become jet fuel for hurricanes.
“The additional heat will manifest itself again at some point, and one of the ways it will do this is through stronger hurricanes,” Shepard said.
On Thursday night, Lee broke what meteorologists call rapid intensification – a hurricane’s sustained winds increased by 35 mph (56 kph) in 24 hours.
“That’s an increase of 80 mph (129 km/h),” Sheppard said. “I can’t stress this enough. Our standard used to be 35 mph, and now we’re having storms that are twice that, and we’re seeing that happen more and more often,” Shepard said he described what happened to Lee as super-enhanced.
Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at MIT, said “all the stars aligned for it to intensify quickly” due to super-warm ocean temperatures and low wind shear.
Category 5 conditions (sustained winds of at least 157 mph (253 km/h)) are quite rare. Over the past decade, only about 4.5 percent of named storms in the Atlantic have developed into Category 5, said Brian McNoldy, a scientist and hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
More intense major hurricanes also threaten communities farther inland, as giant storms can become so powerful that they remain dangerous hurricanes farther over land.
“I think it’s a little-known story,” Shepard said. “Because these storms are so powerful when they make landfall, in some cases they move fast enough that they remain hurricanes deep inland.”
Hurricane Idalia is the latest example. It made landfall in the Florida Panhandle last month and was still a hurricane as it entered southern Georgia, where it slammed into the city of Valdosta more than 70 miles (116 kilometers) from where it made landfall. At least 80 homes were destroyed and hundreds more were damaged in the Valdosta area.
In 2018, Hurricane Michael caused similar damage inland, destroying cotton crops and pecan trees and causing widespread damage in southern Georgia.
While it’s too early to tell how close Lee will be to the U.S. East Coast, New Englanders are keeping a close eye on the storm. As it approaches, it could bring high seas and rip currents to the East Coast.
“What we’re going to see from Lee – and we’re very confident – is that it’s going to be a major wave generator,” National Hurricane Center Director Mike Brennan said during a Friday briefing.
Large waves hit the northeastern Caribbean Sea on Saturday, sending the Lee churning in open water hundreds of miles north of the Leeward Islands.
“The highest significant wave heights we analyzed at Lee this morning were between 45 and 50 feet, and the highest waves could even be double that,” Brennan said of the waves far offshore. “So we might see 80-foot, 90-foot waves associated with Lee.”