MIAMI — Meteorologists didn’t see it coming. Neither did computer models.
Hurricane Julia morphed from mild to monster in the early morning hours Wednesday, joining Igor for much of the day at Category 4. It was the first time since 1926 that two such strong storms have simultaneously stalked the Atlantic.
National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read called the rarity the result of “a classic environment for intensifying hurricanes.”
“Warm water would be the No. 1 factor,” Read said. “As long as you have warm water, you have the fuel.”
That fuel was running near record highs in the Atlantic, helping make Julia, at least briefly, become the strongest storm ever recorded so far east in the Atlantic. At 5 p.m., forecasters knocked Julia down to a formidable 125-mph Category 3, but Igor hung on at Category 4 with 135 mph winds.
In record books going back to 1900, there have only been nine years when two major storms of Category 3 or stronger have existed simultaneously, most recently Floyd and Gert in 1999. Only once before have two Category 4 storms prowled the waters together — back before storms were given names on Sept. 16, 1926, with storm No. 4 and the infamous Great Miami Hurricane.
Fortunately — for every locale but Bermuda, which lies in Igor’s path — forecasters expected both hurricanes to remain far from the Caribbean and United States.
But Read said Julia’s remarkable surge underlined what remains a sobering gap in the complex business of hurricane forecasting. Scientists have whittled track errors in half over the past decade, but gauging growth potential has proven dicier — particularly the timing of a critical phase hurricane experts call rapid intensification, when wind speeds can jump several rungs in hours.
While Julia is mainly fascinating to meteorologists, the consequences can be significant for the public if forecasters badly misread a storm near landfall. Read pointed to Hurricane Charley in 2004 as an example. The storm blew up from Category 3 to the top of the Category 4 chart at 150 mph in its last hours, then jogged slightly east to plow into southwest Florida.
“That’s my biggest fear,” he said. “Just because this one happened to be far out to sea, that doesn’t mean they’re all going to be like that.”
Three projects launched last month by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, the National Science Foundation and NASA are intended to improve intensity forecasts. Researchers’ timing couldn’t be better because the tropics have spit out storms at a frenzied pace this hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30
To date, only a handful of years have produced more named storms. Aside from Alex, four of the five hurricane have reached Category 4 strength. Julia didn’t look like it would be one of them as it moved in Igor’s rough wake. The storm was so close to the African coast that forecasters had limited information, Read said.
“Other than satellite data, we have nothing out there,” he said. “We’re in a data-sparse part of the tropics.”