Published 8:17 PM EDT Oct 12, 2018
Hurricane Michael exploded in intensity this week, from a rather nondescript tropical depression Sunday with winds of 35 mph to a Category 4 monster Wednesday with 155 winds.
When it hit land, it became the most powerful hurricane on record to slam Florida's Panhandle and the third-strongest U.S. landfall of all time.
Along with other weather factors, Michael's rapid intensification was fueled in part by unusually warm sea water in the Gulf of Mexico. Warm water of at least 80 degrees fuels hurricanes, and the water in the eastern Gulf this week was as much as 4 to 5 degrees warmer than normal.
Although random weather patterns certainly played a role, the warm waters in the Gulf have a “human fingerprint” of climate change, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate and hurricane expert Jim Kossin.
Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann told ThinkProgress that "once again we see a storm undergoing extreme rapid intensification over unusually warm ocean waters. We saw this pattern last year with Harvey and earlier this year with Florence and now, with my namesake, Michael.”
Weather.us meteorologist Ryan Maue said "there's no doubt the ocean water encountered by Michael was quite warm compared to the last three decades, especially near the coast."
Maue analyzed early October water temperatures in the eastern Gulf and found that when comparing data from 1985-2005 to data from 2006-2018, the average temperature rose nearly 1 degree.
More: 'It looks like a bomb went off': Tropical Storm Michael menaces Southeast; 2 dead
Also: Michael officially stronger than Katrina at landfall
Related: Hurricane Michael: What you need to know in graphics
He said the cause of the rise is still a research puzzle and that "more detailed climate analysis is needed to better understand what has happened over the past 12 years across the Gulf of Mexico."
Several recent scientific studies say that hurricanes are intensifying more rapidly than they used to. One study this year in Geophysical Research Letters said that since 1986, the rate of intensification of storms like Michael has increased by about 13 mph.
A 2015 study on how ocean temperatures affect hurricane intensity in the North Atlantic found intensification increases by 16 percent for every 1.8 degree increase in average sea-surface temperatures, ThinkProgress reported.
Regardless of the cause, “Michael saw our worst fears realized, of rapid intensification just before landfall on a part of a coastline that has never experienced a Category 4 hurricane,” University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said.
Contributing: The Associated Press