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Why Hurricane Michael’s Power Caught Forecasters Off Guard

Global Warming:Why Hurricane Michael’s Power Caught Forecasters Off Guard Why Hurricane Michael’s Power Caught Forecasters Off Guard

By s4n_bl0g. Global Warming. Published at Tuesday, January 08th, 2019 - 13:44:28 PM.

Hurricane Michael was a sly storm, one that seemed almost unexceptional at first. It followed its predicted path with seeming obedience, but then burst into sudden fury as it approached the Florida Panhandle, reaching wind speeds at the cusp of Category 5 strength and leaving mud and rubble in its wake.

It was, in other words, a hurricane: the product of multitudinous forces that blend heat, wind and moisture into a potent threat, with a whopping dose of chance thrown in. Influences on the formation, direction and strength of hurricanes can involve faraway events like dry air from Saharan dust storms, the heated waters of El Niño in the Pacific, the undulations of the jet stream.

Increasingly, climate change is part of the dangerous mix as well.

Little wonder that modern weather modeling got its start in chaos theory, which acknowledges that small changes can lead to enormous effects so that, as one founder of the field put it, the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas.

As a result, no two hurricanes are alike. Storms like Hurricane Florence this year and Harvey last year moved slowly and dumped prodigious amounts of rain over the landscape. Katrina, in 2005, had weakened to a Category 3 storm by its landfall on the Gulf Coast, but delivered a smashing storm surge that rose 27.8 feet above mean sea level at Pass Christian, Miss.

In the case of Michael, the National Hurricane Center forecast the storm’s path with great accuracy, but its sudden intensification as it approached land was harder to predict. Millions of residents were caught off guard as Michael escalated from a tropical storm to a major hurricane in just two days, leaving little time for preparations.

Why Michael was a surprise to many

“This is really an amazing event,” said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “It came out of nowhere and really intensified rapidly.”

Michael, he said, did not follow the common behavior of storms, which tend to weaken as they reach the shore because of interaction with the land. “It had the pedal to the metal all the way until it hit the coast,” he said.

Hurricane Michael’s sharp increase in strength as it approached Florida was due in part to its low barometric pressure, said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist in the atmospheric science department at Colorado State University.

Low barometric pressure increases a storm’s intensity, and the barometric pressure within Hurricane Michael early Wednesday was just 925 millibars. There have only been a half-dozen storms that struck the United States with lower barometric pressure, the most recent being Katrina, Andrew and Camille — and all six “were devastating storms,” Dr. Klotzbach said.

While prediction of a storm’s path has grown increasingly accurate, the ability to predict rapid intensification has lagged somewhat, said Haiyan Jiang, an associate professor in the department of earth and environment at Florida International University.

The strengthening occurred despite pronounced wind shear in the region that might have been expected to weaken the storm, she added.


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Global Warming:Why Hurricane Michael’s Power Caught Forecasters Off Guard Why Hurricane Michael’s Power Caught Forecasters Off Guard

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