On Thursday night, about 300 miles to the northwest of Guam in the western Pacific Ocean, a monster was born. Super Typhoon Maria underwent rapid intensification over the past 24 hours, developing into the equivalent of a strong Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph.
The powerhouse storm may threaten China’s east coast early next week.
Early on Wednesday morning (local time), Maria made landfall along the northern coast of Guam, knocking out power for thousands of residents. At the time, Maria was a tropical storm only packing maximum sustained winds of 70 mph.
However, once the storm moved back over the ocean on Wednesday evening, Maria quickly deepened into an intense typhoon, feeding off the exceptionally warm (86 degrees) ocean waters of the western Pacific. In just a 24-hour period ending on Thursday at 8 p.m. local time, Maria went from a 70 mph tropical storm to a 160-mph super typhoon, the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane.
According to NOAA’s Hurricane Research Center, the near 100 mph increase in strength over just 24 hours is one of the fastest tropical storm to Category 5 intensification rates on record for a storm in the western Pacific Ocean.
Since Thursday night, the storm has weakened slightly to a strong Category 4.
Over the next 72 hours, Maria will remain over the open ocean as the storm tracks to the northwest. Favorable atmospheric conditions combined with extremely warm ocean waters all but guarantee that the storm will retain Category 4 intensity.
A strong, upper-level ridge of high pressure that essentially spans the entire Pacific Ocean basin will suppress the track of Maria to the south. By early next week, the super typhoon will become a threat to land once again as the current forecast track places the storm just off the coast of the Japanese island of Okinawa by Monday afternoon.
That puts Maria on a potentially catastrophic collision course with the east coast of China. One city there, Shanghai, has a population of some 24 million people.
It is still a bit too premature to speculate exactly where Maria will make landfall at the moment. While the predictability of the path of the storm is fairly high over the next 72 hours, beyond that time frame, there are just too many mitigating factors that will affect the storm’s ultimate destination.
Additionally, Maria is likely to weaken a bit as the storm approaches land early next week. Maria is forecast to enter an area of increased upper-level wind shear (a change in wind speed or direction with height), which tends to “rip” at the preferred circular nature of typhoons, ultimately weakening them.
Regardless of where Super Typhoon Maria ends up, the storm has already placed itself in rare meteorological company. Last year, Hurricane Maria devastated parts of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico as a major Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. The storm was so destructive that it resulted in the name Maria being retired from use for future Atlantic hurricanes.
Now, less than one year later, another major storm named Maria has formed in a completely different ocean basin. Per meteorologist Bob Henson of Weather Underground, only five storms with the same name have reached Category 5 status in different ocean basins. However, all of the other same-named storms were separated by at least seven years. The short time frame between two major storms named Maria is nothing if not noteworthy.