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What happens when a hurricane rapidly intensifies?

Rapid intensification refers to the swift strengthening of a hurricane within 24 hours.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Idalia's winds increased by nearly 55 miles per hour in just 24 hours. In order for a storm to meet the criteria to be classified as a rapidly intensifying storm, wind speeds must increase by 35 miles per hour within 24 hours.

Idalia ranks as the fourth most extreme rapid intensification ever observed for a storm making landfall in the U.S. The other top storms were Humberto (2007), Ida (2021), and King (1950).

Rapid intensification typically involves three key factors: warm ocean waters, low wind shear, and abundant atmospheric moisture.

Hurricanes thrive on warm water, which acts as fuel. When a storm passes over waters above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it can soak up that heat and intensify.

Low wind shear is essential, too. Wind shear is the change in wind speed and direction at different altitudes. High wind shear can disrupt a storm's organization, whereas low wind shear allows a hurricane to stay vertically aligned and strengthen faster.

Lastly, a moist atmosphere plays a role. Dry air can hinder a hurricane's development, but when the storm is surrounded by moist air, it can sustain or even intensify its strength.

In recent years, several hurricanes have intensified rapidly, including Florence in 2019, which increased its peak winds from 75 to 140 miles per hour in 24 hours.

According to Climate Central, in the Atlantic, 170 landfalling tropical cyclones have experienced rapid intensification since 1980. When storms intensify so rapidly, emergency management officials have much less time to issue warnings, facilitate evacuations, and ensure resident safety.

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