Hurricane Michael roared into Mexico Beach, Florida, on 10 October as the strongest storm ever to strike the Florida Panhandle in terms of wind speed, and the third strongest to make landfall in the continental United States. The storm caused severe damage to several coastal communities, Tyndall Air Force Base, and Florida State University’s Panama City campus. Officials have attributed 18 deaths to the storm and dozens of people have been reported missing.
Although National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasters were able to predict where and when Michael was likely to make landfall several days in advance, the storm’s rapid intensification—jumping from a Category 2 to just shy of a Category 5 in 24 hours—proved tougher to anticipate. NHC defines “rapid intensification” as a storm’s maximum sustained winds increasing by at least 56 kilometers per hour in 24 hours or less. Michael underwent at least three intensification periods on its 5-day march toward the coast.
“Predicting a hurricane’s track is relatively straightforward because storms are propelled in one direction or another by the large-scale air currents in the atmosphere,” says Robert Rogers, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Hurricane Research Division in Miami, Florida. “We’ve gotten a much better handle on predicting those large-scale currents over the past 20 years.”