Did Hurricane Wilma have 209 mph sustained winds?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:00 PM GMT on April 28, 2012

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At last week's 30th Conference on Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology of the American Meteorological Society, Dr. Eric Uhlhorn of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division presented a poster that looked at the relationship between surface winds measured by the SFMR instrument and flight-level winds in two Category 5 storms. Hurricane Hunter flights done into Category 5 Supertyphoon Megi (17 October 2010) and Category 5 Hurricane Felix (03 September 2007) found that the surface winds measured by SFMR were greater than those measured at flight level (10,000 feet.) Usually, surface winds in a hurricane are 10 - 15% less than at 10,000 feet, but he showed that in super-intense Category 5 storms with small eyes, the dynamics of these situations may generate surface winds that are as strong or stronger than those found at 10,000 feet. He extrapolated this statistical relationship (using the inertial stability measured at flight level) to Hurricane Wilma of 2005, which was the strongest hurricane on record (882 mb), but was not observed by the SFMR. He estimated that the maximum wind averaged around the eyewall in Wilma at peak intensity could have been 209 mph, plus or minus 20 mph--so conceivably as high as 229 mph, with gusts to 270 mph. Yowza. That's well in excess of the 200 mph minimum wind speed a top end EF-5 tornado has. The Joplin, Missouri EF-5 tornado of May 22, 2011 had winds estimated at 225 - 250 mph. That tornado ripped pavement from the ground, leveled buildings to the concrete slabs they were built on, and killed 161 people. It's not a pretty thought to consider what Wilma would have done to Cancun, Key West, or Fort Myers had the hurricane hit with sustained winds of what the Joplin tornado had.


Figure 1. Hurricane Wilma's pinhole eye as seen at 8:22 a.m. CDT Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005, by the crew aboard NASA's international space station as the complex flew 222 miles above the storm. At the time, Wilma was the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, with a central pressure of 882 mb and sustained surface winds estimated at 185 mph. The storm was located in the Caribbean Sea, 340 miles southeast of Cozumel, Mexico. Image source: NASA's Space Photo Gallery.


Figure 2. Damage in Joplin, Missouri after the EF-5 tornado of May 22, 2011. Image credit: wunderphotographer thebige.

Official all-time strongest winds in an Atlantic hurricane: 190 mph
The official record for strongest winds in an Atlantic hurricane is 190 mph, for Hurricane Allen of 1980 as it was entering the Gulf of Mexico, and for Hurricane Camille of 1969, as it was making landfall in Pass Christian, Mississippi. In Dr. Bob Sheets' and Jack Williams' book, Hurricane Watch, they recount the Hurricane Hunters flight into Camile as the hurricane reached peak intensity: On Sunday afternoon, August 17, and Air Force C-130 piloted by Marvin Little penetrated Camille's eye and measured a pressure of 26.62 inches of mercury. "Just as we were nearing the eyewall cloud we suddenly broke into a clear area and could see the sea surface below," the copilot, Robert Lee Clark, wrote in 1982. "What a sight! Although everyone on the crew was experienced except me, no one had seen the wind whip the sea like that before...Instead of the green and white splotches normally found in a storm, the sea surface was in deep furrows running along the wind direction....The velocity was beyond the descriptions used in our training and far beyond anything we had ever seen." So, the 190 mph winds of Camille were an estimate that was off the scale from anything that had ever been observed in the past. The books that the Hurricane Hunters carried, filled with photos of the sea state at various wind speeds, only goes up to 150 mph (Figure 2). I still used this book to estimate surface winds when I flew with the Hurricane Hunters in the late 1980s, and the books are still carried on the planes today. In the two Category 5 hurricanes I flew into, Hugo and Gilbert, I never observed the furrowing effect referred to above. Gilbert had surface winds estimated at 175 mph based on what we measured at flight level, so I believe the 190 mph wind estimate in Camille may be reasonable.


Figure 3. Appearance of the sea surface in winds of 130 knots (150 mph). Image credit: Wind Estimations from Aerial Observations of Sea Conditions (1954), by Charlie Neumann.


Figure 4. Radar image of Hurricane Camille taken at 22:15 UTC August 17, 1969, a few hours before landfall in Mississippi. At the time, Camille had the highest sustained winds of any Atlantic hurricane in history--190 mph.

The infamous hurricane hunter flight into Wilma during its rapid intensification
While I was at last week's conference, I had a conversation with Rich Henning, a flight meteorologist for NOAA's Hurricane Hunters, who served for many years as a Air Reconnaissance Weather Officer (ARWO) for the Air Force Hurricane Hunters. Rich told me the story of the Air Force Hurricane Hunter mission into Hurricane Wilma in the early morning hours of October 19, 2005, as Wilma entered its explosive deepening phase. The previous airplane, which had departed Category 1 Wilma six hours previously, flew through Wilma at an altitude of 5,000 feet. They measured a central pressure of 954 mb when they departed the eye at 23:10 UTC. The crew of the new plane assumed that the hurricane, though intensifying, was probably not a major hurricane, and decided that they would also go in at 5,000 feet. Winds outside the eyewall were less than hurricane force, so this seemed like a reasonable assumption. Once the airplane hit the eyewall, they realized their mistake. Flight level winds quickly rose to 186 mph, far in excess of Category 5 strength, and severe turbulence rocked the aircraft. The aircraft was keeping a constant pressure altitude to maintain their height above the ocean during the penetration, but the area of low pressure at Wilma's center was so intense that the airplane descended at over 1,000 feet per minute during the penetration in order to maintain a constant pressure altitude. By they time they punched into the incredibly tiny 4-mile wide eye, which had a central pressure of just 901 mb at 04:32 UTC, the plane was at a dangerously low altitude of 1,500 feet--not a good idea in a Category 5 hurricane. The pilot ordered an immediate climb, and the plane exited the other side of Wilma's eyewall at an altitude of 10,000 feet. They maintained this altitude for the remainder of the flight. During their next pass through the eye at 06:11 UTC, the diameter of the eye had shrunk to an incredibly tiny two miles--the smallest hurricane eye ever measured. During their third and final pass through the eye at 0801 UTC, a dropsonde found a central pressure of 882 mb--the lowest pressure ever observed in an Atlantic hurricane. In the span of just 24 hours, Wilma had intensified from a 70 mph tropical storm to a 175 mph category 5 hurricane--an unprecedented event for an Atlantic hurricane. Since the pressure was still falling, it is likely that Wilma became even stronger after the mission departed.

I'll have a new post by Tuesday at the latest.

Jeff Masters

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Quoting hurricanehunter27:
Actually the north storm seems like its starting to get better organized again. Also tornado has not hit Medford yet.
Supercells can go through cycles like this. It is what produces "tornado families"
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Power flashes possibly in Medford. Very dangerous situation for Medford with significant tornado confirmed on the ground.
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Who is broadcasting live? With sound.
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Just impacted Medford.
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Power flashes in Medford.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
Quoting SouthDadeFish:
Watch the velocity loops. You can clearly see the RFD overtake the old cell... It split because of that process.
Actually the north storm seems like its starting to get better organized again. Also tornado has not hit Medford yet.
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We have two tornadoes on the ground right now...A rope/elephant trunk tornado near Wakita (as of 5 minutes ago) and a cone tornado entering Medford.

Power is out in Medford.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
Its going to hit Medford just took a more north turn.
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Quoting hurricanehunter27:
Actually the cell just split.
Watch the velocity loops. You can clearly see the RFD overtake the old cell... It split because of that process.
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Large cone tornado entering Medford right now.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
Quoting SouthDadeFish:
What happened was that the rear flank downdraft wrapped around and is choking out the old cell to the NW. It's possible that the new rotation to the E will develop a tornado as the RFD increases the updraft there.
Actually the cell just split.
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elephant trunk tornado?
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Old circulation is much weaker, but still producing a tornado. (The elephant trunk tornado I mentioned.)
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
An elephant trunk tornado is being confirmed right now west of Medford.
Actually its the one moving North West.
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Okay.... I'm usually on the sidelines, just taking look at what you guys have to say in here. But tonight, between the "real time television content" and your comments, you have me on the edge of my seat this evening. Kudos, guys!

Lin
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An elephant trunk tornado is being confirmed right now west of Medford.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
What happened was that the rear flank downdraft wrapped around and is choking out the old cell to the NW. It's possible that the new rotation to the E will develop a tornado as the RFD increases the updraft there.
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Quoting weatherh98:


All the energy split into the southerly cell, we still may have two tornadoes
Not so much a split of energy as its just the storm moving NW cannot support themselves.
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I hate leaving now but good night
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any damg reports?
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Rope/elephant truck tornado on the ground.
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
Wow.



All the energy split into the southerly cell, we still may have two tornadoes
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
Wow.

One moving north west should die while one moving west will get stronger.
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Wow.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
It just split into 2 supercells. The northern one moving NW. This is classic super cell behavior you typically see in the early stages of a super cells. Its very rare you see it this late.
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second circulation now to the south of medford..
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
Everybody in Medford and Clyde needs to be underground right now. There is a large and extremely dangerous tornado that has been causing power flashes as reported by storm chasers.

The particular storm chasers here said he was getting 85 mph winds 6 miles away from the tornado.



Is that another vortex
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Quoting evilpenguinshan:


just nasty.

The circulation is splitting in two.
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This rotation is extremely violent!
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Quoting evilpenguinshan:


just nasty.
Its so strong its moving NW?!?!
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Its held purple TVS for 2 frames its no mistake now.
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1799. fishcop
hello fellow weather geeks - June 1 coming up!
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just nasty.
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
This is not normal.

This is a very violent and dangerous tornado.

We have a pink TVS.

Oh no.

These are you EF3+ type signatures.
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Everybody in Medford and Clyde needs to be underground right now. There is a large and extremely dangerous tornado that has been causing power flashes as reported by storm chasers.

The particular storm chasers here said he was getting 85 mph winds 6 miles away from the tornado.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
This is not normal.

This is a very violent and dangerous tornado.

We have a pink TVS.

Oh no.



Good Lord!!!
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wow.. be careful medford... that velocity is serious..
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Possible power flashes near Medford. Extremely dangerous situation for Medford.
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Wow that's a nasty line developing in the central US, was that forecast-ed.
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This is not normal.

This is a very violent and dangerous tornado.

We have a pink TVS.

Oh no.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
There is a violent tornado on the ground right now headed towards Medford.


Don't say violent people will take it out of context
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Good lord this is rare.
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There is a violent tornado on the ground right now headed towards Medford.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
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LARGE TORNADO on the ground heading for Medford
http://kfor.com/on-air/live-streaming/
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This is rare.
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This does not look good at all.

Still waiting for it to get away from the radar site.

Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:
Come on....get out of close range...




That is up to the user ;)

As for me, I prefer GR2Analyst.


That's what I figured, btw that map looks sick
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Come on....get out of close range...



Quoting weatherh98:


Which is "better"

That is up to the user ;)

As for me, I prefer GR2Analyst.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 34193

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Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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