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Hurricane Ian exhibited rare, rapid intensification just before making landfall — here's why

The storm is part of a concerning pattern.

are hurricanes getting stronger?

A U.S. flag lies partially submerged in the flooded yard of a house in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hurricanes are by no means a new phenomenon — but over the last several years, they have become stronger and more devastating to our communities. 

As Hurricane Ian makes its way up the east coast, millions of people in the U.S. and the Caribbean are reeling from its impact. In Cuba, the storm left the entire island without power for days. In Florida, it destroyed countless homes, left over 2 million people without power, carried large boats into streets, and trapped thousands of people in their homes.

Ian's rapid intensification just before landfall is a once-rare phenomenon that is becoming more and more common, as Axios reported.

Hurricanes in the past tended to weaken as they neared the U.S. But Ian registered as a Category 3 storm mere hours before it strengthened to a near-Category 5 hurricane, hitting Florida with winds reaching up to 155 miles per hour.

Why are hurricanes getting stronger?

Out of the 37 Category 5 hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic over the last 100 years, six of those happened within the last six years

And just weeks before Ian, Hurricane Fiona — which, like Ian, was also a Category 4 storm at its worst — devastated Puerto Rico, wiping out power for millions and leaving hundreds of thousands without clean water. 

A major factor in hurricane intensification is our warming oceans. A huge fraction of the planet-heating pollution created by our burning of dirty energy sources like coal and methane gas gets absorbed by our oceans, causing them to heat up. 

Warm ocean water, combined with moisture in the air, a lack of competing winds, and a pre-existing cluster of storms or other extreme weather conditions, are the four main ingredients in the "recipe" for hurricanes, as NASA explains.

Ocean temperatures have been rising steadily over the past several decades, increasing by almost 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the year 1901. 

And, as our planet continues to overheat, more water evaporates and enters the air, which increases the presence of that second ingredient, too. A hotter planet also means warmer air, which holds more moisture than cold air, further perfecting the conditions for hurricanes to form.   

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist who specializes in climate change, explained this dynamic in a recent interview.

"We know that hurricanes are a natural phenomenon," Hayhoe explained. "But climate change is exacerbating them, making them worse — like putting them on steroids."

"We aren't seeing a change in the overall number of hurricanes, but when those hurricanes happen, they are intensifying faster, they're getting stronger, they're dumping a lot more rain on us and they're even moving more slowly," she added

Since the 1980s, the number of severe hurricanes has increased, while the number of less extreme ones has decreased. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that we'll continue to see more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the future. 

How you can help

If you'd like to help the victims of Ian and Fiona, there are plenty of ways to do so. We have put together a list of relief funds, aid organizations, and more, complete with descriptions of what exactly your money will go to. 

Among those is the Florida Disaster Fund, which is the state's official relief fund for extreme weather emergencies. This money will go directly to the victims, many of whom had no flood insurance, both due to access issues and because many of these areas have not needed coverage for such severe floods in the past. 


The best way to stop hurricanes from becoming more intense in the future is to limit our burning of dirty energy sources like coal and methane gas

Instead, we need to look toward cheaper and cleaner energy sources like solar and wind to make sure we're not adding to the "four ingredients" needed to produce intense hurricanes.

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