John Morales addresses Hurricane Lee’s rapid intensification and likely impacts – NBC 6 South Florida

National Hurricane Center forecasters, as good as they are, are not known for bold predictions.

Their conservative approach has helped us remain calm and continue with life-saving preparations, even in the face of short-term fluctuations in storm behavior and hurricane forecasting. Their forecast adjustments have historically been slow and steady.

Climate change is now forcing them to act.

The very first forecast released by the NHC for Tropical Depression Thirteen, now Hurricane Lee, called for an immediate Category 4 hurricane. It is the NHC’s record-breaking initial intensity projection, dating back to at least 2000.

And now, on Thursday, the NHC is calling for Lee to become a Category 5 monster at 160 mph over the Atlantic this weekend.

Consider that only 6% of hurricanes in the last 100 years have reached Category 5 intensity. It takes courage to explicitly point out an extremely rare event in a forecast. But the Atlantic is so incredibly hot right now that statistically, the chance of us seeing such warmth is only 2 hundredths of a percent (0.02%).

The meteorologists at the NHC also see this and are more than justified in making such an extreme and unusual intensity forecast for Hurricane Lee.

Watch Live: Track Hurricane Lee as it moves across the Atlantic

In my many decades as a meteorologist specializing in tropical weather, I have noticed a significant increase in forecasts in which the NHC specifically calls for rapid intensification of a tropical system. This has been particularly the case in recent years.

Finally, peer-reviewed research shows that the proportion of tropical storms becoming catastrophic Category 4 and 5 hurricanes (or typhoons) is increasing. It’s not that we’re seeing more tropical storms in general. Except that more and more of those that form go through these rapid intensification cycles, where wind speeds increase by at least 35 miles per hour in 24 hours.



Climate control center

Chart courtesy of Climate Central.

And modern hurricanes sometimes experience incredible intensification, like Hurricane Jova in the eastern Pacific on Wednesday. Within 24 hours, maximum wind speeds increased by 85 miles per hour, resulting in another rare (so far) Category 5 storm on Wednesday evening. It is still available as Cat 4 and fortunately does not pose a threat to the country.

Will the future potential Cat 5 Lee end up somewhere? Hopefully not.

The Caribbean islands will miss the core of Hurricane Lee. The NHC forecast said the eye of the hurricane would miss the British Virgin Islands by 280 miles, Puerto Rico by 320 miles and the Dominican Republic by 400 miles. It is then expected to turn north due to a decrease in the jet stream off the east coast of North America.

That would keep the core of the dangerous major hurricane away from the Turks and Caicos Islands and the eastern Bahamas. However, this northerly curve means the people of Bermuda are worried.

And residents of Canada’s easternmost provinces and even New Englanders in the U.S. are aware of Lee’s and hope that a northerly course will be followed by another turn to the northeast that will spare them.

Note that I didn’t even mention Florida because there’s no reason to worry about Lee.

However, indirect effects of the strong storm on the island states in the western Atlantic could occur as early as Friday. High waves lead to dangerous sea and beach weather. Distant outer rain bands could bring heavy rainfall and moderately gusty winds this weekend.

Any of us would endure the indirect effects of a Cat 5 instead of a direct landing, every day of course and twice on Sundays. Lee will be closest to the Caribbean this Sunday.

John Morales is NBC6’s hurricane specialist.

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