Charley's rapid shift in intensity takes forecasters by surprise

August 14, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In spinning up from a relatively unremarkable Category 2 storm to the extreme Category 4 level in just five hours yesterday, Hurricane Charley illustrated the limits that still dog hurricane forecasting.

John L. Beven, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said the storm's explosive development was "extremely unusual" and, for the moment at least, inexplicable.

Yesterday morning, the center had predicted that the storm would strike Florida as a Category 2. But then something happened over the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles south of Fort Myers, Fla., Beven said - possibly some extra pulse of energy from warm gulf waters, some shift in winds that might otherwise hinder the storm, or some chaotic change in the walls of clouds around its eye.

The changes occurred at a pace rarely seen in such giant swirling storms. The forecast at 11 a.m. was for the storm to strike Florida with winds of 100 mph. By 2 p.m., the fresh forecast put the anticipated winds at landfall at 125 mph. By 3:50 p.m., the storm's tightly wound core was shredding Florida's west coast with sustained winds of 145 mph, just 10 mph below that of a Category 5 storm, the most destructive.

Meteorologists have become adept at predicting the path of such giant storms. But they say mistakes in judging intensity are still common because of a lack of measurements.

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