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5 Meteorologists Illustrate the ‘Nightmare Scenario’ of Hurricane Otis

It came out of nowhere.

Trees in a hurricane.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Monsters don’t only sneak up on you in horror movies. In the dark of Monday night, a storm system brewing in the Eastern Pacific still looked as if it would make landfall near Acapulco, Mexico, as nothing greater than a tropical storm. But within just 12 hours on Tuesday, Tropical Storm Otis intensified by 80 mph into a full-blown hurricane; when it made landfall just after midnight on Wednesday morning, it had exploded into an unprecedented Category 5 storm. Eric Blake, a forecaster with the National Hurricane Center, called the event nothing short of a “nightmare scenario.”

Hurricane Otis is not the first storm to sneak up on forecasters this year, and if new hurricane research I recently covered is any indication, it won’t be the last, either. Hurricanes are more than twice as likely to intensify from a Category 1 storm into a Category 3 or greater in a single day than they were between 1970 and 1990, Andra Garner, an assistant professor at Rowan University, found when she looked at historic patterns in the Atlantic. “When storms intensify quickly, they can become more difficult to forecast and to plan for in terms of emergency action plans for coastal residents,” she told me via email last week, adding presciently, “I think these findings should really serve as an urgent warning for us.”

Here’s how five meteorologists have illustrated the unprecedented danger of Hurricane Otis:

Hurricane models didn’t even show this as an option.

And here’s another fun fact from meteorologist Tomer Burg about hurricanes named Otis doing surprising things.

Otis was likely powered by warm ocean waters.

“Imagine starting your day expecting a stiff breeze and some rain, and overnight you get catastrophic 165 mph winds,” Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School, also tweeted.

Acapulco doesn’t have experience with storms this strong.

The last hurricane to hit the Acapulco area directly was a significantly weaker tropical cyclone in 1951. Philippe Papin, with the National Hurricane Center, further explains on Twitter why Hurricane Otis is distinct from Hurricane Pauline in 1997, a Category 4 storm that killed hundreds near Alculpoco due to regional flooding and rainfall, but which actually made landfall further southeast.

Otis strengthened by 80 mph in just a 12-hour window, a record for the region.

Colorado State University researcher Philip Klotzbach emphasized why it’s so hard to prepare for a storm like Otis — because with that sort of speed, you just can’t see it coming.

This is what that level of intensification looks like in motion.

Mind-boggling, indeed.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.


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