Hurricane Michael has matured, developed an eye, and is gathering strength as it churns on a direct path towards the Florida Panhandle.
National Hurricane Center scientists expect the storm to strike land on Wednesday as a major storm, with winds greater than 110 mph, making it at least a Category 3 hurricane.
There’s now almost nothing holding back the storm from further intensification as it approaches land, bringing not just destructive winds but perilous surges of ocean water into the Florida and Alabama coasts.
“Hurricane Michael is primed for additional strengthening prior to landfall because the key players in the atmosphere and ocean are all conducive for it,” Brian McNoldy, a storm researcher at University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, said over email.
One of these key players is wind shear, which are winds that hit hurricanes at their sides and weaken, or sometimes kill, the tempests. Without these winds, there’s little threatening Michael’s stable, cyclone-like form.
“That helps the storm remain intact, upright, and symmetric,” said McNoldy.
By fall, these hurricane-threatening winds often pick up in the Gulf, Falko Judt, a research meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said in an interview.
But not this year. “This is unusual,” noted Judt.
A second influential factor is the warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes feed off of the bath-like temperatures of sea surface waters. Without these warm waters, they couldn’t even form, nor sustain themselves.
And in the Gulf right now, even as the waters begin to gradually cool as fall sets in, they’re still plenty warm.
“It’s always warm there,” said Judt.
Lastly, there are no masses of dry air in the lower or middle portions of the atmosphere where Hurricane Michael is headed, said McNoldy. A hurricane’s thunderstorms need moisture to fuel their activity, but when storms suck up dry air, they threaten to “wrap into the circulation and choke off the thunderstorm activity,” said McNoldy.
But Michael has mostly moist air ahead.
The storm poses a particularly severe threat to the Florida coast — places like Panama City and Apalachicola — as well as inland Tallahassee, because the storm is not expected to weaken much as it approaches land.
“Usually they weaken before they hit land,” said Judt. “The models are predicting this will not weaken before landfall, which would be very unusual.”
The question of why storms typically weaken as they approach land “is still an open science question,” noted Judt. Some scientists have proposed drier air from nearby land can temper the storms. But as of Tuesday, any such weakening isn’t in the cards for Michael.
If Michael follows its expected course, it will become just the fourth major hurricane to hit the Florida panhandle since 1950.