The Trouble with Harvey: Hurricane Intensification Dilemmas

August 25, 2017 · 0 comments

Hurricanes like rapidly-changing Harvey are still full of surprises for forecasters.

The remnants of Caribbean Tropical Storm Harvey made a startling burst Thursday from a tropical depression with 35 mph winds to an 85 mph hurricane in a little more than 12 hours. It has been moving steadily toward a collision with the middle Texas coast and landfall is later Friday. If intensification continues at the same rate, Harvey is likely to be a major hurricane by then, according to a Thursday afternoon advisory from the National Hurricane Center, with sustained winds of 120-125 mph and even higher gusts.

That’s a big “if.”

The drop in central pressure, which had been precipitous all day—a sign of rapid strengthening—had largely slowed by Thursday afternoon. Harvey’s wind speed jumped 50 mph in fits during the same time, but leveled off by late afternoon at about 85 mph. Harvey was a strong Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale by dinner time.

The intensifying process then slowed. But it turns out this was temporary.

Many signs pointed to continued rapid intensification: a favorable, low-shear environment; expanding upper-air outflow; and warm sea surface temperatures. Overnight and Friday morning, Harvey continued to traverse an eddy of water with high oceanic heat content that has detached from the warm Gulf of Mexico loop current and drifted westward toward the Texas coast. Its impact is apparent as the pressure resumed its plunge and winds have responded, blowing Friday morning at a steady 110 mph with higher gusts.

Further intensification is possible.

In fact, the SHIPS (Statistical Hurricane Intensity Prediction Scheme) Rapid Intensification indices “are incredibly high,” Hurricane Specialist Robbie Berg wrote in the Thursday morning forecast discussion. Guidance from the model then showed a 70 percent chance of another 50 mph jump in wind speed prior to landfall. The afternoon guidance lowered those odds a bit, but still showed a a 64 percent probability.of a 35 mph increase.

It wouldn’t the first time a hurricane has intensified rapidly so close to the Texas coast. In 1999 Hurricane Bret did it, ramping up to Category 4 intensity with 140 mph winds before crashing into sparsely populated Kennedy County and the extreme northern part of Padre Island.

Hurricane Alicia exploded into a major hurricane just prior to lashing Houston in 1983. And 2007’s Hurricane Humberto crashed ashore losing its warm water energy source and capping its intensity at 90 mph just 19 hours after being designated a tropical depression that morning off the northern Texas Coast, a similar boost in intensity as Hurricane Harvey.

Rapid intensification so close to landfall is a hurricane forecasting nightmare. An abundance of peer-reviewed papers reveal that there’s a lot more we need to learn about tropical cyclone intensity, with more than 20 papers published in AMS journals this year alone. Ongoing research into rapidly intensifying storms like Harvey, is helping solve the scientific puzzle, including recent cases such as Typhoon Megi  and Hurricane Patricia. Nonetheless, despite strides in predicting storm motion in past decades, intensification forecasting remains largely an educated guessing game.