On September 16, 2017 a growing tropical storm strengthened into a category 1 hurricane. Then something starling happened. Within 24 hours, the winds grew from 85 miles per hour to over 160 mph catapulting the category 1 into a terrible category 5.

Scientists call this kind of change a “rapid intensification.” The definition applies to an increase of at least 35 mph in a span of 24 hours. Maria’s intensification was nearly triple that, and the rate of change was about four times as fast.

This explosively rapid intensification, set the stage for Maria to become the deadliest hurricane in the United States in over 100 years. The island of Puerto Rico took a direct hit, affecting more than 3 million Americans, and ultimately at least 3,000 deaths.

Hurricanes as big as Maria release the equivalent heat energy of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes

According to NOAA, hurricanes as big as Maria release the equivalent heat energy of a 10-megaton nuclear bomb every 20 minutes. That’s more than 600 times the power of the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan that killed over 100,000 people. More that 600 atom bombs. Every. Twenty. Minutes.

So what caused Maria’s dramatic intensification? Surprisingly, calm winds were a major contributor. More precisely, wind shear, or the difference in wind speeds in the areas above the hurricane allowed Maria to develop into a faster spinning cyclone without disturbance. If present, strong wind shear can disrupt a young hurricane, spreading out the core wind forces and weakening the classic cyclone structure. Maria benefited from very low wind shear on September 17.

In addition, extremely warm ocean waters—not just at the surface, but descending below the surface—propelled air rapidly upwards, enabling Maria’s winds to strengthen into a truly catastrophic engine of destruction.

One of the Best Ways You Can Help? Take a Tropical Vacation

It took nearly a year for power to be fully restored in Puerto Rico. But despite the hardships and destruction, the people of this beautiful island have proved themselves resilient and courageous.

The road to recovery is still a long way from finished, and every donation helps. But there’s one more wonderful way you can help: Go visit one of the most beautiful—and resilient—places on earth. Visit DiscoverPuertoRico.com to learn more.


Experience Maria in VR

Science Planet will soon unveil an extraordinary new virtual reality experience that takes you inside hurricane Maria.

Learn more about the Science Planet VR collection