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According to NOOA, only 2% of storms in the Atlantic become Category 5

Satellite view of Hurricane Lee on September 8, 2023. Credit: NOAA

Lee reached a rare strength few storms had ever reached. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hurricane database, only 2% of storms in the Atlantic reach Category 5. Including Lee, only 40 Category 5 hurricanes have crossed the Atlantic since 1924.

Category 5 is the highest level on the hurricane wind speed scale and has no peak. A hurricane reaches this stage when it has sustained winds of 252 km/h (157 mph) or more. A 165 mph (265 km/h) storm like Lee belongs to the same category as the 1980 Atlantic hurricane that topped 190 mph (305 km/h) on record.

Hurricanes need the right combination of warm water, moist air and light upper-level winds to intensify enough to reach Category 5. Lee was counting on these conditions, especially warm water in the middle of a hot summer.

Sea surface temperatures in one part of the Atlantic Ocean are 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal after rising “above record levels” this summer, according to David Gearton, Florida state climatologist.

The Atlantic isn’t the only ocean to produce a monster storm in 2023. Seven ocean basins where tropical cyclones can form have seen a Category 5 storm so far this year, including Hurricane Joa, which reached Category 5 in the east. Pacific earlier this week.

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