Climate Change Driving Rapid Hurricane Intensification

Hurricanes Are Strengthening Faster Because Of Climate Change

Hurricane Ian’s wind speeds increased from 120 to 155 miles per hour in the 24 hours before it made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, a textbook definition of rapid intensification. According to the National Hurricane Center, rapid intensification is an increase in the maximum sustained wind speed of a tropical cyclone of at least 35 miles per hour in a 24 hour period. Ian is one of many devastating hurricanes, including Hurricanes Harvey and Maria in 2017, Hurricane Michael in 2018, and Hurricane Ida in 2021, that experienced rapid intensification before making landfall.

Rapid intensification is particularly dangerous for coastal communities. Stronger storms are a larger threat to coastal areas, as soaring wind speeds exponentially increase storm damage. Additionally, rapid intensification means coastal communities have less time to prepare for stronger storms. For example, Hurricane Ida jumped from a Category 2 to a Category 4 storm in less than 24 hours, preventing officials from calling for mandatory evacuations because there was not sufficient time for the millions in the storm’s path to get off roads before the storm hit. 

Unfortunately, rapid intensification is becoming more common because of climate change. The oceans absorb over 90% of excess atmospheric heat, which is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. These warming waters act as fuel for hurricanes, increasing the amount of energy released through winds and storm surges. Hurricane Ian’s rapid intensification occurred over Caribbean waters that are nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. Scientific studies of rapid intensification found a “highly unusual” upward trend between 1982 and 2009, indicating climate change is a large contributing factor. 

Hurricanes will become stronger, faster, without climate action. A recent study found intensifications of 70 miles per hour or more within 24 hours of landfall used to be a 1 in 100 year event, but could happen every 5 to 10 years by 2100 without aggressive climate action. Major metropolitan areas, including Houston, New Orleans, Tampa, and Miami are all at risk. Another paper found that climate-driven changes to Atlantic wind patterns could allow storms to intensify closer to shore, magnifying the threat from rapid intensification.