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Here's why Hurricane Lee is alarming even if it doesn’t make landfall

Lee is the latest storm to accelerate at a breakneck pace partly because ocean temperatures continue to warm, giving hurricanes the energy they need to gain speed and power.
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Hurricane Lee, the storm churning through the open Atlantic waters Friday, is expected to pass well north of Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean islands. But even if it doesn’t make landfall, its rapid intensification into Category 5 is enough reason for alarm, according to meteorologists and climate experts.

It is the latest storm to accelerate at a breakneck pace partly because ocean temperatures have been unusually warm, giving hurricanes the energy they need to gain speed and power, according to experts.

“Lee’s rapid intensification to a Category 5 is a harbinger of the future. We should expect more cases of rapid intensification as the climate continues to warm,” said Jeff Masters, a former hurricane scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who now works as a meteorologist for Yale Climate Connections. 

In the span of roughly 24 hours, Lee intensified from Category 1 to Category 5 — a rare occurrence. The storm was moving at 14 mph Thursday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph that then increased to a staggering 165 mph by Friday morning.

Lee was about 565 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands in the Caribbean and barreling west-northwest at 13 mph, with sustained winds near 155 mph, the National Hurricane Center said in a bulletin at 11 a.m. ET Friday.

No coastal watches or warnings were in effect.

The hurricane center said that Lee will likely strengthen further Friday, adding that while the storm’s intensity may fluctuate in the coming days, it is projected to remain a major hurricane through early next week.

But the storm’s astonishingly quick development stunned hurricane experts.

“This is one of the most impressive rapid intensification episodes I’ve ever seen in the Atlantic,” tropical cyclone forecaster Levi Cowan wrote Thursday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. 

“Rapid intensification” describes when a storm’s sustained winds increase at least 35 mph over 24 hours.

Faster intensification is alarming in part because it means government officials and communities have less time to prepare, and face more uncertainty in evacuation planning, according to Michael Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Several major hurricanes in recent years have undergone rapid intensification, fueled in large part by warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures. Warm water is a key ingredient for strengthening storms, along with high moisture content in the atmosphere and weak upper-level winds.

In recent months, oceans around the world have been exceptionally warm, with average daily global sea surface temperatures hitting a record high at the end of July. Parts of the Atlantic Ocean, near where Lee is currently located, have hovered around 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami, said that while Lee’s intensification was “certainly impressive,” it was not unprecedented in the Atlantic Basin. Still, only two storms — Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Hurricane Felix in 2007 — strengthened quicker over a 24-hour period.

He said that as Lee moved over the open waters of the Atlantic, conditions were ripe for the storm’s rapid intensification.

“Yesterday the vertical wind shear was very low and the water temperature under it was very warm,” McNoldy wrote in an email. “It took full advantage of both.”

Marine heat waves have helped provide the necessary fuel for hurricanes to quickly intensify — a phenomenon that scientists say could become more common as a result of climate change. 

Researchers have seen that process play out. Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 all rapidly intensified before making landfall. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian’s peak winds increased from 150 mph to 185 mph over the course of only nine hours. 

Last year, Hurricane Ian underwent two separate rounds of rapid intensification before battering southwestern Florida. And just last week, warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico helped Hurricane Idalia strengthen from Category 1 to Category 4 over 24 hours.

“It’s a huge problem, and the past is not a good guide to what we should expect going forward,” Masters said.