‘Incredible’: Hurricane Lee’s winds doubled in a day; they could reach 180 mph or more

US News Today (News21USA): Hurricane Lee barreled westward with more than 165 mph winds Friday morning after exploding in intensity on Thursday, doubling its wind speeds in just 24 hours.

Hundreds of miles from land, the Category 5 hurricane is forecast to climb to 180 mph winds Friday, an extremely powerful storm making the most of a warm, open ocean and light winds. Millions watch and wait to see what the dangerous storm will do in the days ahead.

High surf and life-threatening rip currents are expected to arrive along the islands in the northeastern Caribbean by Friday and remain through the weekend, the National Hurricane Center said. Then rough surf, rip currents and hazardous conditions are forecast to arrive along much of the U.S. East Coast by Sunday evening.

The hurricane center’s official forecast track and most hurricane models predict Lee will continue to move west-northwestward into early next week and be somewhere northeast of the Turks and Caicos and eastern Bahamas on Tuesday.

Beyond that, it is “way too soon to know what level of impacts, if any, Lee might have along the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic Canada, or Bermuda late next week, particularly since the hurricane is expected to slow down considerably over the southwestern Atlantic,” the center’s Robbie Berg, a senior hurricane specialist, wrote in the 11 p.m. forecast discussion Thursday.

Lee is forecast to slow down over the weekend as it meets a ridge that blocks its forward progress, Berg said.

Where is Hurricane Lee?

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  • At 5 a.m. Friday, Lee was 630 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands, moving west-northwest at 14 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
  • Satellite images show a classic major hurricane, with a clear visible eye, and its central pressure had dropped to 926 millibars.
  • Hurricane-force winds extend out as far as 30 miles from the center of the storm and tropical storm-force winds extend out up to 140 miles.
  • Wave heights near the center of the storm are 45-50 feet.
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How high could Lee’s winds get?

That’s a good question. The official forecast is 180 mph, but in the discussion Thursday night, Berg said the center’s new Hurricane Forecast and Analysis System had runs projecting peak intensity of 195-207 mph. “That’s getting into rarefied air,” he wrote, adding the forecast will be adjusted if necessary.

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Only seven other hurricanes in the modern satellite era have reached a peak maximum intensity of 180 mph, said Phil Klotzbach, a researcher and seasonal hurricane outlook author at Colorado State University.

Lee is forecast to maintain winds of at least 150 mph over the weekend, then begin a slow decline, maintaining winds of 130 mph or more through Tuesday.

Hurricane center’s forecast track for Lee

The official forecast track cone shows the most likely path of the center of the storm. It does not illustrate the full width of the storm or its potential impacts, and the center of the storm is likely to travel outside the cone up to 33% of the time.

Flight investigations begin

An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter began flights on Thursday evening, providing crucial information that helped the hurricane center and its models get a better understanding of Lee’s intensity. Three other hurricane hunter flights are scheduled Friday.

As long as the storm manages to avoid land and remains in the open ocean, it will be a great opportunity to do research flights, said Andrew Hazelton, an associate scientist with the University of Miami and the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

Why did Lee rapidly intensify?

“This is one of the most impressive rapid intensification episodes I’ve ever seen in the Atlantic,” meteorologist Levi Cowan, founder of tropicaltidbits.com wrote on X Thursday. Hurricane Lee went from having no eye in the morning to a Category 5 by the evening. “Absolutely incredible,” Cowan said.

Water temperatures in a swath across the Atlantic are much warmer than normal, averaging nearly 85 degrees, the hurricane center said.

“But it’s not just the sea surface temperatures,” said Mark Bourassa, a meteorology professor at Florida State University. It’s that Lee was in a place where nothing else was interfering with it strengthening to the degree the sea surface temperatures would support.

Storms intensify when there’s nothing else messing them up, Bourassa said. “Lee is not near land, there’s no dry air coming in and there’s no higher winds aloft.”

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How does Lee compare to other hurricanes?

Despite its incredible strengthening from Category 1 to Category 5 status in 24 hours on Thursday, Lee isn’t the fastest storm to intensify in the Atlantic. In October 2005, Wilma rocketed from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in 24 hours, according to the hurricane center’s post-storm report.

Five other Atlantic storms have intensified by 80 mph or more in 24 hours, Philip Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University, posted on X Thursday night. They include: Wilma (2005), Felix (2007), Ike (2008); Matthew (2016), Maria (2017), Eta (2020).

Klotzbach also shared the list of other hurricanes that have had winds equal to or greater than 180 mph winds. They are: Allen (1980), Gilbert (1988), Mitch (1998), Rita (2005), Wilma (2005), Irma (2017), Dorian (2019).

What the spaghetti model plots show

Model plot illustrations include an array of forecast tools and models, and not all are created equal. The hurricane center uses the top four or five highest-performing models to help make its forecasts.

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Other storms the center is watching:

Margot – The season’s 13th named storm – formed in the Atlantic Thursday. Just 290 miles west-northwest of the Cabo Verde Islands, it’s forecast to become a hurricane on Sunday, as it moves north in the Atlantic far away from land.

Jova – In the Pacific, after intensifying this week, Hurricane Jova is forecast to move into cooler water and dissipate by early next week.

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