‘Nightmare’ Hurricane Otis Developed in a Flash

The tropical storm off the coast of southern Mexico looked as if it might bring some heavy rain to the tourist haven of Acapulco.

Twelve hours later, it had metastasized into Hurricane Otis, a Category 5 storm that slammed into the coast yesterday with winds of 165 miles per hour. Hurricane experts were shocked.

The region is still effectively cut off from the outside world, so the toll is not yet known. Travelers shared videos of widespread destruction and described the situation as “apocalyptic.”

But it’s already clear that Otis is an extreme example of what hurricane experts call rapid intensification, defined as a minimum increase of 35 miles per hour in wind speed over 24 hours. Otis’s wind speeds increased by a staggering 115 miles per hour in less than a day, growing from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane.

Eric Blake, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center, called the rapid intensification a “nightmare scenario,” giving the authorities almost no time to warn residents or prepare for the onslaught.

And the storm’s dramatic transformation looks like a sign of things to come.

It’s too early to say whether Hurricane Otis became more powerful so quickly because of man-made climate change. (It often takes months to produce such attribution studies.) But a hotter planet is likely to produce stronger storms, because warmer water holds more energy, and warmer air holds more moisture.

This year is almost certain to be the hottest in recorded history, according to the European Union’s climate change agency, Copernicus. What’s more, Otis formed in a corner of the Pacific Ocean that is unusually warm right now, thanks in part to this year’s El Niño, a naturally occurring atmospheric phenomenon.

The atmosphere is an incredibly complex system, and a number of factors were at work. Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that “climate change makes Otis more likely to happen,” according to Jonathan Lin, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University who focuses on hurricanes.

New research on the Atlantic Ocean that was published earlier this month added to a growing body of evidence that rapid-onset major hurricanes are becoming more likely, our colleague Delger Erdenesanaa reported.

All year, weather systems have been transforming into monster storms in a matter of hours, catching meteorologists, residents and tourists off guard and leaving them with little time to prepare.

But even in our extreme new normal, Otis stands out. It’s rare that a storm intensifies so fast, so close to landfall, Lin said. None of the common forecasting models predicted Otis would intensify so quickly.

Judson Jones, a meteorologist at The Times, explained why Otis caught so many forecasters by surprise.

Tomer Burg, who studies atmospheric science at Oklahoma University, shared the following chart to “emphasize how poorly hurricane & global models performed for Hurricane Otis.” The forecasts from weather models are the colored lines, and the dotted line is the actual intensity of the storm:

Despite improvements in weather models and satellite data, there are still limitations to what scientists can predict about intensifying hurricanes.

“The models are actually really good,” Lin said. But “rapid intensification is, in general, difficult to predict because it’s an extreme event.”

The new era of rapid intensification will require better preparation all around.

Residents in hurricane-prone areas should consider preparing a survival kit, as well as learning how to track a hurricane, which Judson explained earlier this year.

At the same time, governments should continue investing in improving forecasting models, Lin said. While it may take years for the models to get significantly better than they are now, the investments will pay off if they allow authorities to accurately predict dangerous storms.

Because while Otis may be one of the most rapidly intensifying hurricanes on record, it most likely won’t be the last.

“We would expect cases like Otis, where you have really rapid intensification in a short amount of time, will become more frequent with warming,” Lin said.

Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the newly elected House speaker, has questioned climate science and opposed clean energy, and he received more campaign contributions from oil and gas companies than from any other industry last year.

“It should concern us all that someone with such extreme views and so beholden to the fossil fuel industry has such power and influence during a time when bold action is more critical than ever,” said Ben Jealous, the executive director of the Sierra Club, an environment group.

At a town hall in 2017, Johnson said: “The climate is changing, but the question is, is it being caused by natural cycles over the span of the Earth’s history? Or is it changing because we drive S.U.V.s? I don’t believe in the latter. I don’t think that’s the primary driver.”

Heather Reams, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a group that works with Republicans on clean energy, said she expected that Johnson would try to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act, the trillion-dollar law that seeks to curb the country’s carbon emissions.

But, she said, “the more embedded these tax incentives become, particularly in the red districts, I think it will be hard to repeal.” — Lisa Friedman

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