With tornado-like wind speeds coiled around a razor-sharp, vicious eyewall, Hurricane Michael’s assault on the Florida Panhandle is reminiscent of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and these 10 portraits of Michael’s fury paint an incredible and gruesome scene.
1. Michael makes landfall
Minute-by-minute satellite imagery captured by the GOES-16 satellite shows the voracious Michael making landfall along the beaches east of Panama City. With five times greater temporal resolution and capturing four times the spatial detail, GOES-16 is light-years ahead of the previous weather satellite the United States used until 2016.
The particular spectral band used in this shot is most sensitive to whitish colors and enhances their texture. That’s why clouds, ground covered in snow, and highly sandy regions like beaches are plotted in white. Vegetation, meanwhile, fades into a more gray/black background.
In the stunning loop above, watch the beach stand out as a thin white line, looming ominously at the bottom of the eye.
2. Eye of the storm
At the same time satellites captured the above renderings, one Facebook user — Stefan Melendez — recorded this incredible perspective from the ground. It appears no other video like this of any hurricane in the modern age exists; it is highly unusual for the eye of a storm to be this clear. Melendez’s live stream depicts eerily blue skies overhead, betraying the ring of 150 mph winds surrounding him.
The inside of the eyewall is visible like a stadium, as plumes of rapidly-rising air swirl into the storm and fuel its barrage of winds and rain. In the eye itself, some of this air strikes the tropopause — effectively the “ceiling” of the atmosphere — and curls back down into the eye. Downed trees and damage in the background of the video show just how strong the first side of the storm was — and minutes after the broadcast concluded, the second half of the hurricane arrived.
3. Pilot’s view
We’ve seen Michael’s crystal-clear eye from the ground and from space, but have you ever imagined what it would be like flying into it? That’s what the U.S. Air Force’s Hurricane Hunters do for work! They sample the storm in crisscross patterns, obtaining data used by weather models and meteorologists alike to better forecast the storm’s intensity and track. It’s a dangerous job, but the breathtaking views like this are worth it.
Lt. Col. Sean Cross, 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron pilot, shot this clip as the aircraft penetrated Michael’s eye. The tops of thunderstorms — 40,000 feet high — tower high above the plane. From this standpoint, it’s easy to see why those in the weather industry refer to the impressive “stadium effect” exhibited by strong tropical cyclones; their cores build upward and out, looking like a sports arena.
4. Red sky at night
ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee covered the storm for viewers from Mexico Beach, Fla. When the sun set, Zee watched as an amber light bathed destroyed homes, the peaceful glow seemingly out-of place — concluding a day that would change the lives of residents forever.
How could such a serene scene occur just hours after one of the worst storms to ever strike the United States laid siege to the area? There’s a scientific explanation. Hurricanes like Michael derive their energy by ingesting copious amounts of air. It all spirals inward, converging at the eye before radiating out in all directions. This “outflow” — essentially the “exhaust” of a storm — forms tendrils of high cirrus clouds protruding from the storm’s center like hair waving in the breeze. Because they’re so far up, they catch sunlight even after the sun has set. That’s why they remain emblazoned in crimson while the edge of near-surface cloud cover fades into the night. The heavens were certainly on fire.
5. Gravity waves
In order for a thunderstorm to develop, rising air must climb high in the sky. It’s like a bubble of air ascending in a pot of boiling water. But to spawn a hurricane, it takes a heck of a lot more than just a bubble.
Massive volumes of warm, humid air race upward at breakneck speeds. While the air should stop rising at some point, sometimes it has trouble putting the brakes on. The upward momentum of the screaming updraft carries it past where it should go, and like a spring it’s shoved back downward. This up-and-down bobbing motion of air pockets can produce waves in the cloud tops, spreading outward in all directions like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond.
This GOES-16 satellite shot shows exactly that — gravity waves — propagating outward from Michael’s center. See if you can spot them. They appear as alternating patches of light and dark coloring, as the undulations of the waves catch the light from the waning sun.
They’re often regarded as a harbinger of a hellacious storm.
When a cyclone moves ashore, it can produce a storm surge — often responsible for the greatest source of storm-related destruction. It’s a combined effect — both the hurricane’s low pressure causing the ocean to “bulge” several inches — and the strong winds pushing walls of water on land until it rises, in the case of Michael, up to 14 feet high.
Michael’s catastrophic surge inundated Mexico Beach. It swept away homes, businesses, vegetation, and in spots likely peeled the tar right off the road. This is why living only a few feet above sea level along the Gulf Coast is a risky gamble. As climate change generates more intense storms, the odds of one’s property being claimed by the sea will rise.
7. Birds in the eye
We know the impact of hurricanes on people, but have you ever wondered how Mother Nature reacts to such cataclysms?
Doppler radar can offer an answer. Using a product called “hydrometeor classification,” we can use the radar beam to target individual particulates whirring through the air. The amounts of radar energy returned at different angels can provide insight into the shapes of whatever’s flying through the air. Most of the time, the radar sees normal shapes — red — which are generally as wide as they are tall. But once in a while, something unusual happens. Blue shows up where irregular objects are detected.
In tracking tornadoes, this can be a signal of lofted debris. But the consistent blue color appearing at the heart of Michael’s eye is something different: birds.
They’re drawn into the circulation, and trapped when the strong inflow winds preclude their escape. So many collect that eventually they show up on radar. Many die from exhaustion, flying for days until the circulation weakens enough that they may escape. Others ride the winds northward, ending up in areas well outside their typical habitat. Several tropical birds were sighted in New England following a massive hurricane in 1938.
8. Buzz saw beast
The entire structure of Hurricane Michael can be seen in this radar presentation. From the outer rainbands to the vibrant yellows and oranges of heavy rain squalls wrapping inward to shroud the core, Michael’s circulation peaked at a little more than 300 miles across. Mobile barely saw any rain from the system, while more than half a foot fell between Panama City and Tallahassee. A confirmed 129 mph gust was clocked at Tyndall Air Force Base, smacked dead-on by the eyewall.
Farther northeast, kidney bean-shaped rain cells can be seen feeding into the massive atmospheric whirlpool. These miniature embedded downpours are kinked, because they themselves are rotating on a local level. It’s not uncommon for tornadoes to spin up by the dozen in the forward right quadrant of storms that make landfall. At least six twisters have been reported since Wednesday.
9. Radio silence
Have you ever wondered why wind speeds measured from the ground are often significantly lower than the forecast wind speeds advertised by the National Hurricane Center? It’s not that the storm is under-delivering. It’s pretty hard to build a measuring device something that will withstand 150 mph winds!
The National Weather Service has thousands of ASOS weather stations spattered across the United States. Most are equipped with an instrument to measure wind speed known as an anemometer. But all the stations depend on electricity, and when the winds get high enough, power supply is often cut. Those that do have battery backup are hard-pressed to remain standing long enough for the extreme winds to arrive.
Vortices in the atmosphere tend to have smaller vortices inside them. It’s a process known as vortex breakdown. That’s why some tornadoes feature smaller “suction spots” dancing around the main funnel. Hurricanes are no different, as miniature “mesovortices” can sometimes orbit around each other in the eye.
They can show up on radar, too. The circulation of a mesovortex can yank an arm of rainfall into the eye, appearing as an appendage pointing into the storm.
These mesovortices can lead to rapid fluctuations in air pressure and wind speed at the edge of the eyewall. This is something researchers noted during Hurricane Harvey’s arrival in Rockport, Tex.
Only as damage surveys and rescue/recovery missions continue in the days ahead, the true scope of the disaster will begin to be realized. In a warming world favoring stronger storms and higher sea levels, these type of pictures will become increasingly common. As hurricane researcher Kerry Emanuel put it, we’re seeing a “taste of the future.”
The author, Matthew Cappucci, is a senior in atmospheric sciences at Harvard University.