Hurricane Lorenzo broke records when it briefly strengthened to a Category 5 storm, with winds whipping near 260 kilometers per hour, as it spun over the eastern Atlantic Ocean on September 28. No other tropical cyclone that has formed in the Atlantic has reached such intensity that far northeast since record-keeping began in 1851.
The previous record-holder didn’t even stand a chance of holding onto its crown: Hurricane Hugo, which slammed into the Carolinas in 1989, first reached Category 5 status 965 kilometers farther west, according to Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Of the 36 Category 5 hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic Ocean since 1851, 35 (red dots) didn’t reach Category 5 status until moving near or over the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Lorenzo (blue dot) reached its peak strength in the middle of the North Atlantic, farther east than any other recorded tropical cyclone.
Where Atlantic hurricanes reached Category 5 strength, 1851–present
Normally, the water in the northeastern part of the Atlantic is too cold and the winds too variable to allow a hurricane to get so strong, says Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. High wind shear — differing wind speeds at different altitudes — rips these tropical cyclones apart before they can pick up too much speed. “But in this particular instance, there wasn’t very much shear. And consequently, it was able to reach Category 5 intensity,” he says. Lorenzo “had the perfect ingredients for a short amount of time” (SN: 5/18/12).
Now weakened to a Category 2 with winds of 165 km/h, Lorenzo is headed toward the Azores Islands. It is expected to make landfall there on October 2, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts, lashing the westernmost islands with high winds and heavy rains before being downgraded.