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Category 4 Hurricane Lane poses rare direct threat to Hawaii

Infrared satellite image of Hurricane Lane on Aug. 21, 2018. Credit: NOAA.

Hurricane Lane, an intense Category 4 storm, is poised to move perilously close to the Hawaiian islands later this week, according to updated forecasts on Tuesday morning. Hurricane watches, meaning that hurricane conditions could hit within 48 hours, are in effect for Hawaii and Maui counties.

The big picture: Hurricanes typically steer clear of or weaken before reaching Hawaii, due largely to cooler ocean temperatures closer to the islands. However, right now, the waters are warm enough — about 0.5°C, or 0.9°F, above average for this time of year — to support a hurricane. There is even a possibility that a weakened Lane could be the first hurricane to make landfall in Honolulu since the Hawaii's statehood.

  • If the storm were to make a significant impact on the island of Oahu, in particular, it could cause flooding at Honolulu International Airport, the oil refinery at Barbers Point, and several large military installations, including Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. A direct hit on Kauai would imperil that island's agricultural and tourism industries.
  • Simulations conducted for the military have warned that just-in-time delivery of food and water could be disrupted for all the islands if the container port of Honolulu were damaged by a hurricane. The refinery is also considered critical for supplying the islands with reliable electricity — although recent expansions of renewable energy have reduced the islands' vulnerability somewhat.

The details: As of Tuesday evening eastern time, Hurricane Lane was moving toward the west-northwest at about 10 miles per hour, located about 550 miles south-southeast of Honolulu. It had maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, making it a high-end Category 5 storm. It's possible it could reach Category 5 status on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning eastern time. Hurricane Lane is expected to remain a major hurricane (at or above Category 3 intensity) through Wednesday and possibly longer than that.

What we're watching: Computer models show the storm making a sharp northward jog, putting the storm closer to the islands since projections on Monday. Most projections, including the official National Hurricane Center forecast, show the storm center remaining at sea as Lane turns northward and then sharply westward after Thursday.

  • However, the timing of these turns is uncertain, and the storm is much larger than just the center of its eye, making heavy rains, high waves and winds, and storm surge flooding a threat to some or all of the Hawaiian islands.
  • To get a better idea of the storm's track and intensity changes, both NOAA and the Air Force are flying missions into and around the storm with Hurricane Hunter aircraft. On Monday night, one of NOAA's P-3 research planes hit such severe turbulence inside the storm that today's flight was canceled, in order to inspect the aircraft for damage, the Hurricane Center said.

The National Hurricane Center summarized the danger to Hawaii this way in a technical forecast discussion: "Lane is forecast to move dangerously close to the main Hawaiian Islands as a hurricane later this week, potentially bringing damaging winds and life-threatening flash flooding from heavy rainfall. As Lane is expected to be slow-moving as it nears the islands, it will produce large and damaging surf, mainly along exposed south and west facing shores..."

This isn't normal: A historic example of a hurricane that turned sharply north and hit the Hawaiian islands is not encouraging. Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai in 1992, hitting the island as a Category 4 storm.

  • Hurricane Dot, the only other tropical cyclone to make a direct hit on the state, also hit Kauai in 1959.
  • This could be a sign of things to come, however, as studies project that increasing sea surface temperatures will enable tropical storms and hurricanes to be sustained at Hawaii's latitude further north.

What's next: It's possible that more hurricane and tropical storm watches will be issued for parts of the Hawaiian islands on Tuesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

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