Surprise hurricanes: Atlantic storms now twice as likely to go from weak to deadly in just 24 hours

GLASSBORO, N.J. — Could a dangerous hurricane actually take the East Coast by complete surprise? A new study warns that Atlantic storms are now over twice as likely to intensify from weak to major hurricane status within 24 hours. The cause? You guessed it — climate change.

The study asserts that the risk of these storms evolving from a Category 1 to a major Category 3 or beyond within a day has significantly increased over the last 40 years. Furthermore, the research indicates that hurricanes have a heightened probability of rapid strengthening along the U.S. East Coast now than they did between 1970 and 1990.

Dr. Andra Garner of Rowan University, the study’s author, emphasizes the need for enhanced communication methods to alert vulnerable communities. This is especially crucial since pinpointing the exact moment of a hurricane’s most rapid strengthening remains challenging.

Typically, hurricanes or tropical storms intensify fastest over regions with unusually warm sea surface temperatures. This uptick in storm intensification rates has been attributed to the warming oceans due to climate change. However, the alterations in the rate of hurricane intensification across the entire Atlantic basin are still unclear.

Hurricane viewed from radar equipment
Hurricane viewed from radar equipment (Photo by NASA on Unsplash)

Dr. Garner’s research scrutinized the wind speed variations throughout the lifespan of every Atlantic hurricane from 1970 to 2020. These hurricanes were categorized into three eras: the historical era (1970–1990), the intermediate era (1986-2005), and the modern era (2001–2020). For each hurricane, Dr. Garner identified the maximum increase in wind speed over any given 24-hour duration to determine its peak intensification rate.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the study’s results suggest that the likelihood of a hurricane intensifying by 20 knots (23 mph) or more rose from 42.3 percent during the historical era to 56.7 percent in the modern era. The chance of a hurricane transitioning from a weak to a major one within a day also escalated, moving from 3.23 percent to 8.12 percent.

Additionally, the study highlighted shifts in the locales where hurricanes most frequently reached their peak intensification rates. Dr. Garner discovered that hurricanes now tend to strengthen faster off the U.S. Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean Sea, while the likelihood decreased in the Gulf of Mexico. Notably, four of the five most financially devastating Atlantic hurricanes since 2017 intensified swiftly during their existence. The study underscores the urgency for communities at risk to formulate improved hazard preparedness plans and communication strategies.

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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report. 

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