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Why Experts Have A Hard Time Predicting A Hurricane's Intensity


Well, forecasters have gotten better - much better in recent years of predicting the path of a hurricane. But the intensity, that's more tricky. Here to help us understand why is Angela Fritz. She's a meteorologist with The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, and she has been following this storm and this whole storm season. Angela Fritz, welcome.

ANGELA FRITZ: Thank you.

KELLY: So we all knew Hurricane Michael was coming. We did not all know it was going to be this strong - that it would be a Category 4. So start there. Why is the intensity of a hurricane so hard to predict?

FRITZ: Broadly, generally, we know whether a hurricane is going to intensify or weaken. What we can't really tell is whether it's going to rapidly intensify. And that's something that we keep hearing over and over again, especially over the past decade or so, about these rapidly intensifying hurricanes.

KELLY: So what has changed in the last decade or so that has created this phenomenon of rapidly intensifying hurricanes?

FRITZ: We're seeing a change, I think, in sea surface temperature. We're seeing stronger storms because the sea surface temperature - the ocean water is so much warmer. We just don't quite have the knowledge available to us and the equations available to us to predict exactly when and how it's going to intensify. And we need a lot more research to understand exactly when that will happen.

KELLY: So describe to me what was going through your mind last night as you're watching this, and it's doing something different than you were expecting even a couple of days ago.

FRITZ: You know, in the back of your mind, you're always thinking this is something that could happen. And it's something that storms can do especially when they have the perfect conditions. The warm water of the Gulf of Mexico, it's perfect for storms like Michael. Last night it happened. And we all were kind of, you know, looking at each other like, yep, there it goes. And it's...

KELLY: And when you say when it happens, you mean what? You're watching wind speeds that are higher than you expected?

FRITZ: Yes. As the storm starts to rapidly intensify, it takes on this buzz-saw-like shape. It becomes very well-defined. You have this sinking feeling that things are about to get much worse than the forecast had suggested.

KELLY: Although, to my central question of why predicting intensity is so challenging, you're citing factors such as warmer waters - warmer ocean waters. But we all know that's the case. We all know it's happening. So is one step here just to start predicting hurricanes are going to be more intense than they were a generation ago?

FRITZ: I mean, that is one step. Another step is that we need better research. And we need more time and effort and manpower to be able to look at the dynamics of a hurricane, to really sit down and piece everything together.

KELLY: Any last-minute forecasts you want to give us for how this week will play out with Hurricane Michael?

FRITZ: It's going to have a devastating impact on the coast. And well-inland hurricane conditions will, you know, expand well inland into Tallahassee and even parts of Alabama and Georgia. And then rainfall, strong winds up into the Carolinas. And it will blow out by Friday. But I also just wanted to make sure that, you know, people in the Carolinas and southeast Virginia are aware that this is a storm that will affect you.

KELLY: Angela Fritz, thanks so much.

FRITZ: Thank you.

KELLY: She's a meteorologist with the Capital Weather Gang here in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.