Expert: ‘Active Year Worldwide’ for Rapid Hurricane Intensification

By | December 19, 2023

While only three hurricanes made landfall in the United States this year, rapidly intensifying hurricanes in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans charted near the top of record lists in 2023.

Each of the year’s major Atlantic hurricanes — Lee, Idalia and Franklin — underwent rapid intensification periods in recent months, with Lee intensifying by 86 mph in 24 hours, making it the third-highest rapid intensification in the Atlantic’s recorded history.

In October, Hurricane Otis intensified by 104 mph in 24 hours, tying Hurricane Linda as the second most rapidly intensifying storm on the East Pacific intensification record list. In September, Hurricane Jova intensified by 86 mph in a day — enough to tie for fifth on the East Pacific’s list.

“It is rare for any one year to have just one hurricane get into the top portions of these record lists,” explained Wesley Terwey, senior scientist with Verisk’s Extreme Event Solutions division. “But Lee, Jova and Otis all entered the record books for their basins this year. This is why I say that rapid intensification, or even as it has been called this year, ‘explosive intensification,’ is kind of the theme for this year’s tropical season worldwide.”

Related: Hurricanes Now Twice as Likely to Spin Up From Minor to Whopper, Study Says

Terwey shared a detailed analysis of this year’s Atlantic hurricane season, telling attendees at a December webinar that 2023 was an “active year worldwide” for rapid intensification. But rapid intensification is not unusual. So, what made 2023 special?

“The answer here is that we had multiple storms in multiple basins this year land on their basins’ respective lists for most rapidly intensifying storms,” Terwey explained.

The most common definition of rapid intensification is that the winds in a cyclone increase by at least 35 mph in 24 hours. This degree of increase is significant, Terwey said, because it represents the “top end of wind changes over time within tropical cyclone lifetimes.”

Most rapid intensification periods occur in low-wind shear environments with warm water temperatures. Approximately 20% to 30% of all tropical cyclones undergo at least one rapid intensification period in their lifetime.

Terwey said that it is possible this year’s rapid intensification records may just be a statistical fluke.

Current research on trends and rapid intensification with respect to anthropogenic climate change has shown mixed results, he explained. Some claim that rapid intensification chances increase in a warmer environment, while others claim that local climatological trends like oceanic multidecadal oscillations are the dominant drivers of rapid intensification chances.

“Either way, it’s hard to deny that 2023’s Lee, Jova and Otis were impressive intensifiers on their own terms,” he said.

In total, 19 Atlantic storms were named in 2023, including the three major hurricanes and four non-major hurricanes. And while Terwey said there was no significant deviation from a normal distribution through the season, he classified the season’s activity as “above average,” pointing to its higher than usual accumulated cyclone energy and noting in his presentation that the central and eastern Atlantic regions were “extremely busy.”

Related: NOAA: 2023 Atlantic Hurricane Season Ranks 4th for Most-Named Storms

A full-fledged El Nino, which usually decreases hurricane activity, was in effect in 2023. Nevertheless, warm sea surface temperatures throughout much of the Atlantic basin put the normally cooler central and eastern tropical Atlantic into a “favorable range for tropical storm formation,” Terwey said.

These warmer sea surface temperatures likely contributed to the global tropical cyclone activity increase, he noted, noting that all basins in the northern hemisphere experienced near-average to above-average seasons this year.

Still, only a few rapidly intensifying hurricanes made landfall as major storms, and just one hit the United States. Otis and Idalia are each estimated to have caused billions of dollars in insured losses in Mexico and the Southwest U.S., respectively. Lidia made landfall in a sparsely populated Mexican peninsula, and Mawar brought widespread damage to northern Guam.

Topics Catastrophe Natural Disasters Hurricane

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