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Hurricane Otis: How a tropical storm turned into a 'nightmare scenario' overnight

Otis, which made landfall near Acapulco on Wednesday morning as a Category 5 hurricane, intensified by about 110 mph in just 24 hours.
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In a single day, Hurricane Otis went from a nuisance to a monster.

Otis, which made landfall near Acapulco, Mexico, on Wednesday morning as a Category 5 hurricane, “explosively intensified” by about 115 mph in just 24 hours, according to the National Hurricane Center, which called it a “nightmare scenario” for southern Mexico. 

Only one other storm in recorded history — 2015’s Hurricane Patricia — has eclipsed that mark, it said in a forecast Tuesday night.

“Imagine starting your day expecting a stiff breeze and some rain, and overnight you get catastrophic 165 mph winds,” Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric and Earth Science, wrote on X. “Just 24 hours prior, it was a tropical storm and was forecast to make landfall as a tropical storm.” 

Otis’ stunning intensification made it the strongest hurricane to have made landfall in Mexico in recorded history. The storm has weakened to a Category 2 hurricane, but strong winds, heavy rainfall and flash flooding will continue to hammer parts of southern Mexico.

The National Hurricane Center said 8 to 16 inches of rain are expected, with up to 20 inches through Thursday across Guerrero and the western coastal sections of Oaxaca.

The hurricane’s incredible ramp-up fits with a pattern scientists are following with concern. In recent years, a larger percentage of tropical storms have rapidly intensified as they approached landfall, meaning they gained at least 35 mph wind speed in 24 hours. The intensification is fueled by warm water on the ocean’s surface, which provides extra energy for the storm.

In recent months, the world’s oceans have shattered temperature records, with multiple bodies of water in the grips of marine heat waves.

McNoldy said on X that Hurricane Otis “took full advantage of a warm patch of ocean,” moving over waters that were roughly 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius) late Tuesday as it neared Acapulco.

Scientists have said rapidly intensifying storms are likely to be more common as a result of climate change. In recent years, the prediction appears to be playing out with alarming accuracy. Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 all rapidly intensified before they made landfall. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian’s peak winds increased from 150 mph to 185 mph in only nine hours. 

Last year, Hurricane Ian underwent two separate rounds of rapid intensification before it caused catastrophic destruction in southwestern Florida. And more recently, Hurricane Idalia in late August and Hurricane Lee in September both gained speed and power at breakneck pace.

Scientists are still puzzled by the factors that lead to rapid intensification. Climate change’s warming of ocean waters could be playing a role. Improvements in satellite technology have also increased scientists’ ability to track storms, which could make it easier to identify the trend. 

A study published last week in the journal Scientific Reports found that tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean were about 29% more likely to undergo rapid intensification from 2001 to 2020, compared to 1971 to 1990. In recent times, more than twice as many hurricanes went from Category 1 or weaker to Category 3 or stronger in 36 hours, the study found. 

Rapid intensification makes forecasting more challenging. 

“Predicting rapid intensification remains one of the hardest problems in hurricane forecasting,” Robert Rohde, a climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote on X. “This is a catastrophic miss.”

The hurricane center was forecasting life-threatening storm surge along the coast of southern Mexico on Wednesday. It expected destructive winds and heavy precipitation to continue further inland, producing mudslides and flash floods.