An ocean on fire

A well-formed eye and a strengthening system

HOUSTON – Last night, in the National Hurricane Center’s forecast for Hurricane Lee, this intensifying storm reached 160 mph sustained winds! Not only a Category 5 (156+) but a strong Category 5. And the forecast for today is that the hurricane will get to 175 mph winds by evening! Here’s the forecast below:

Category 5 Hurricane LEE

I have rarely seen such fast intensification of any storm and to that degree. However, there is very little wind shear out there to tear up this developing hurricane, no Saharan dust to inhibit it’s strengthening -- in fact, plenty of moist air -- and the ocean sea surface temperatures are easily in the 84 -86° range (all it takes is 80°):

Plenty of warm water

The National Hurricane Center in their discussion noted “Lee continues to strengthen at an exceptional rate...Low shear, very warm SSTs and copious moisture should allow Lee to continue to rapidly strengthen at least tonight.” Lee is really just beginning to get going and will maintain strength the next several days. Does it affect the U.S. eventually? Probably not with a direct strike, but it’s honestly too early to say. Certainly dangerous tides and rip currents can be expected.

This is one of those perfect examples of warm water and low wind shear creating a strong Atlantic storm. BUT, we are seeing the same thing happening in the Gulf and we have for the past several years. In fact, look at the graphic below -- eight MAJOR storms (Category 3 or higher) in just the last seven YEARS!

The past 7 years of Gulf Storms

While Harvey was a flooding mess for us, you might recall it hit Rockport as a 130 mph Category 4 hurricane. Lake Charles is STILL recovering from Laura back in 2020. And several of these storms -- Ida, Michael, Ian and Idalia -- rapidly intensified over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, just like Lee is doing in the Atlantic. While we have had our share of strong hurricanes in the Gulf, to have this many in such a short period of time is concerning. The waters of the Gulf continue to get warmer faster and stay warmer longer. Right now, the temperatures average 88-90°!

VERY warm Gulf water

We haven’t see temps like that since 2005 when Katrina and Rita barreled across the Gulf. What to make of this trend? Most of the increased heat due to global warming actually is IN the ocean -- that’s where it is stored. And the results are exactly what we are seeing -- the threat of a MAJOR hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico every year.

Meteorologist Jeff Berardelli and his station’s digital editor, Kevin Accettulla, put together an excellent outline of these eight storms here if you’d like to read more.

For now, the Gulf is quiet and we just have to deal with two more days of 100° temperatures, especially today with excessive heat warnings in effect. Have a safe and hydrated weekend!


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About the Authors:

KPRC 2's chief meteorologist with four decades of experience forecasting Houston's weather.

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.