Hurricane Lee charts a new weather path and could point to more monster storms

Experts say Lee may also be a terrible harbinger of what’s to come as ocean temperatures rise, creating fast-growing major hurricanes that could threaten communities far north and inland.

“Hurricanes become stronger at higher latitudes,” said Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society. “If this trend continues, it will highlight places like Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.”

Excessive condensation

As ocean temperatures rise, they act as jet fuel for hurricanes.

“This excess heat will re-emerge at some point, and one of the ways that this happens is through stronger hurricanes,” Shepherd said.

During the overnight hours of Thursday, Lee broke the benchmark for what meteorologists call rapid intensification — when a hurricane’s sustained wind speed increases by 35 mph (56 km/h) within 24 hours.

“This increased speed by 80 mph (129 kph),” Shepherd said. “I can’t stress this enough — we used to have this gauge of 35 miles per hour, and here’s a storm that was twice that amount and we’re seeing that happen more frequently,” said Shepard, who describes what happened with Lee. “Excessive condensation.”

With extremely warm ocean temperatures and low wind shear, “all the stars lined up to condense rapidly,” said Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at MIT.

Internal threats

Category 5 condition — when sustained winds reach at least 157 mph, or 253 kph — is considered very rare. Only about 4.5% of named storms in the Atlantic developed into Category 5 in the past decade, said Brian McNoldy, a scientist and hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

More intense major hurricanes also threaten communities inland, where monster storms can grow so powerful that they remain dangerous hurricanes for longer distances over land.

“I think that’s a story that’s been somewhat untold,” Shepherd said. “Because these storms are powerful when they make landfall, in some cases they move fast enough that they remain as hurricanes inland.”

Hurricane Idalia was the most recent example, when it came ashore in the Florida Panhandle last month and remained a hurricane as it entered southern Georgia.

It then struck the city of Valdosta, Georgia, more than 70 miles (116 kilometers) from where it made landfall. At least 80 homes were destroyed in the Valdosta area and hundreds more were damaged.

Danger to New England

While it’s too early to know how close Lee will get to the East Coast of the United States, New Englanders are watching the storm warily as some models have predicted it will track dangerously close to New England – especially Maine. It has been 69 years since a major hurricane made landfall in New England, McNoldy said.

On Sept. 8, 1869, a Category 3 hurricane known as the “September Storm of 1869” struck Rhode Island, the National Weather Service in Boston noted Friday. The storm cut all telegraph lines between Boston and New York and capsized a schooner, killing 11 crew members.

“If Lee does make landfall in New England, there is no doubt that storm surge will pose a significant threat,” he said.

Monster waves

As the ocean becomes disturbed as it approaches the East Coast of the United States, it could lead to high seas and rip currents throughout the East Coast.

“What we will see from Lee — and we are very confident — is that it will be a major wave producer,” Mike Brennan, director of the National Hurricane Center, said at a news conference on Friday.

“This morning the highest significant wave height we were analyzing in Lee was between 45 and 50 feet, and the highest waves can be twice that,” Brennan said. “So we could be looking at 80- or 90-foot waves associated with Lee.”

Emanuel was tracking the storm this weekend in New Harbor, Maine. Given the long period of time any kind of tornado warning has been issued in New England, some residents may become complacent and think tornadoes are a Florida or Louisiana problem, he said.

“One worries about whether they will take it seriously when it comes to this,” he said.

Something to watch

Forecasters will be watching for any potential interaction in the coming days between Lee and newly formed Tropical Storm Margot, which is expected to become a hurricane next week.

It’s possible that Margot could change Lee’s trajectory, although it’s too early to tell if that will happen, experts say.

Margot is located far to the east of Lee, but as Margot strengthens, it could affect weather systems in the region that direct tornadoes.

The phenomenon known as the Fujihara effect can occur when two tropical storms orbit each other, but that doesn’t mean they will in this case, Emanuel said. However, if that happens, the two storms could push each other into the Atlantic Ocean, which could change their paths.

(tags for translation) Hurricanes and Tornadoes

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