Explainer: How Hurricane Ian got so nasty so quickly

You can never go wrong with climate change.
Ameya Paleja
A satellite image of Hurricane Ian approaching Florida.
A satellite image of Hurricane Ian approaching Florida.

Wikimedia Commons 

On Wednesday afternoon, Hurricane Ian became one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the mainland U.S. as it battered southwest Florida with strong winds and torrential rains. More than two million homes and businesses were left without power when the hurricane made landfall before it was downgraded to a category one storm as it moved east, The Guardian reported.

Hurricane Ian

In case you haven't had a moment to catch up with what happened in the U.S., here's a short visual.

Hurricane Ian had previously passed over Cuba, where it caused unprecedented flooding and caused a total wipeout of power on the island. The hurricane was initially expected to make landfall around Tampa, about 120 miles north, but it moved southward and east toward Florida as it moved away from Cuba.

As it passed over Florida, the storm, with a width of about 140 miles, grew wider than the Florida peninsula, and its impact was felt for miles inland.

How did Ian get so nasty so quickly?

Between Monday and Tuesday, the hurricane grew 67 percent in size and became the Category 4 behemoth that we witnessed in Florida. However, Hurricane Ian isn't the first storm to have grown so nasty so quickly. As per available records, there have been 30 Atlantic tropical storms that have surged like this, Associated Press has reported.

What makes it worrying is the fact that this number is not coming from historical records spanning decades. Rather, it is from a very short slice of our recent history, since 2017.

Meteorologists have attributed Ian's rapid intensification to its travel over the Caribbean waters that are now 1.8o Fahrenheit (1oCelsius) warmer due to climate change. Additionally, the heat-trapping gases are making storms slower, which also means that they are trapping more water inside them. This results in the formation of Category 4 and 5 storms.

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What can we expect in the future?

The National Hurricane Center defines rapidly intensifying storms as those which gain speeds of at least 35 miles (56 km) an hour in less than 24 hours. In the case of Ian, though, forecasters were warning about it days in advance.

Using data from 10-year intervals available with the National Hurricane Center, researchers have found that there are roughly 25 percent more rapidly intensifying storms in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific now than there were 40 years ago, AP said in its report.

Another study claims that hurricanes near the coast are intensifying more quickly than before, risking those who live in these areas. As these storms hold more water, there is also the risk of storm surges. Hurricane Ian's wind speeds not only exceeded 150 mph; the subsequent storm surge was a deadly 18 feet.

With slower-moving storms, the risks for devastation at a single location increase, as the U.S. witnessed in Louisiana and Texas with Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The rapidly intensifying storms also give emergency planners lesser time to prepare, the AP report said.

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