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Hurricane Ian intensifies into a monster with weather markings

Florida braces for impact as Hurricane Ian moves toward the state’s vulnerable Gulf Coast.

The exact path of the storm remains uncertain, but it seems increasingly likely that the Tampa Bay region will begin to feel its effects on Wednesday. In a worst-case scenario, the area would face the first direct landfall of a major hurricane in more than 100 years. There is also the possibility that Hurricane Ian could stall on the coast, which could bring a catastrophic combination of heavy rain and storm surge.

Ian, currently a Category 3, has intensified faster than any other hurricane this Atlantic season. It strengthened from a tropical storm to a hurricane early Monday, then quickly became a major storm early Tuesday.

As it strengthened into a hurricane Monday, Hurricane Ian officially reached the National Hurricane Center’s threshold for “rapid intensification,” that is, when a storm grows unusually fast, gaining at least 35 miles per hour in wind speed in 24 hours or less. It continued to rapidly intensify through Tuesday and is on the verge of becoming a Category 4.

Hurricane Ian presents a stark lesson in the dangers of rapidly strengthening storms, giving coastal communities little time to prepare for impact.

It’s also a reminder of the ways that climate change is transforming tropical cyclones. Hurricanes are expected to rapidly intensify more frequently and potentially at a faster rate as the planet continues to warm. That means storms like Ian may become more common in the coming decades.

Before Ian reached hurricane status, forecasters predicted it would strengthen at breakneck speed. Some projections suggested the storm could become a major hurricane, Category 3 or higher, within a day or two.

Unusually warm waters were the main fuel for Hurricane Ian’s ultra-rapid transformation. Warm ocean temperatures plus favorable wind conditions are the main ingredients for strong storms, and according to NOAA, temperatures in parts of the Caribbean hovered around 90 degrees as Hurricane Ian formed.

Studies suggest that conditions may become more suitable for rapid intensification in the future, as climate change warms the Earth. In fact, several studies indicate that it is already happening.

A study 2018published in the magazine Geophysical Investigation Letters, found that hurricanes in certain parts of the Atlantic are rapidly intensifying faster than they used to. The paper suggested that warming ocean waters are the likely culprit, although it noted that the warming so far could be a combination of human-caused climate change, natural weather fluctuations and other factors.

A seperation paper, published in 2019, also found that Atlantic hurricanes are intensifying at a faster rate. That study used climate models to investigate possible causes and found that human-caused climate change likely played a role.

And continued warming is likely to continue to worsen rapid intensification events in the future.

Warming waters clearly play a role in strengthening hurricanes. But some research suggests that changes in wind patterns in certain parts of the Atlantic, influenced by climate change, could also be a factor. A paper 2019 suggested that future warming may affect wind shear patterns near the United States, allowing hurricanes to intensify faster as they approach the East Coast.

That is a problem for people who live on the coast.

Rapid intensification significantly increases the chances of a cyclone becoming a major hurricane. Research Suggests that about 79 percent of large storms experience rapid intensification at some point and that very few storms reach Category 3 or higher without it.

And when storms intensify quickly, especially as they approach land, coastal communities may have less time to adequately prepare for them.

Some of the most devastating hurricanes in recent seasons rapidly intensified before making landfall, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017, Michael in 2018, and Ida in 2021.

And around the world, Hurricane Ian is not the first rapidly intensifying cyclone this year. Typhoon Noru quickly became a “super typhoon” before hitting the Philippines on Sunday, giving affected communities little time to prepare. At least five deaths have been reported.

Forecasters were able to project the rapid intensification of Hurricane Ian several days in advance, giving Florida communities additional notice. Still, its high wind speeds aren’t the storm’s only dangers.

Forecasts say Ian is likely to slow down and potentially stop near the Florida coast as it approaches land. If that happens, the storm could unleash a devastating storm surge and dump heavy rain while remaining in place, increasing the risk of catastrophic flooding.

If that’s the case, it may provide another look at the influence of climate change on tropical cyclones. In general, storms are likely to get wetter and rainier as the climate warms, simply because a warmer atmosphere is able to hold more water.

other research it also suggests that hurricanes move more slowly as the planet warms, allowing them to dump more rain in one place. A 2018 article by hurricane expert Jim Kossin found a significant slowing pattern in cyclones affecting land masses in Australia, the western North Pacific, and the North Atlantic.

“It is almost certain that these trends have increased local rainfall totals in these regions,” the study noted.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environmental professionals.

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