July 6, 2018

Itty Bitty Hurricane Beryl Defies the Odds, Makes Fools of Us All

Looks sometimes aren't deceiving at all. A tiny, good lookin' tropical depression far out in the Atlantic Ocean suddenly and surprisingly developed into a full-fledged hurricane that's so small you could miss it from space without knowing where to look. Hurricane Beryl unexpectedly strengthened into a category one hurricane in less than 24 hours, packing 80 MPH winds around a pinhole eye. The hurricane is about as small as one can get, barely registering larger than your average squall line.

Yesterday I wrote that this storm is "the kind of cyclone that tries to defy the odds" due to its appearance and location, but ultimately couldn't due to its weakness and the hostile environment it's approaching:

The system initially wasn't expected to develop into much of anything, but it started to look more impressive on satellite imagery during the day on Wednesday. This is the kind of cyclone that tries to defy the odds, but fortunately for storm-weary folks near the coasts, the environment is too hostile to allow this storm to buff itself up beyond what we think should be possible. Even a stronger, more solid storm would struggle against the obstacles ahead of T.D. Two.

Oops. Talk about defying the odds.

Hurricane Beryl has maximum winds of 80 MPH this morning as it scoots west toward the Lesser Antilles. The latest forecast from the National Hurricane Center shows the storm possibly reaching the islands as a hurricane before slowly weakening once it enters the Caribbean. Beryl's diminutive size will be its saving grace—even if the worst conditions affect land, it wouldn't be for more than a few hours. The greatest threat with this storm would be flooding and mudslides from heavy rain.

Hurricane Beryl's hurricane-force winds only extend 10 miles away from the center of the eye, and winds greater than 39 MPH only extend out 35 miles. My favorite size comparison for tropical cyclones (and one that always draws ire from some weather folks for its ridiculousness) is to overlay a storm's wind field over the Washington D.C. metro area to show how relatively small it is:

Beryl's hurricane-force wind field is so small that it just barely covers Washington D.C. with just enough room to fit in most of Arlington County, Virginia. The storm's field of 39+ MPH winds would be big enough to stretch from Howard County to Charles County in Maryland.

Meteorologists and weather models have a hard time forecasting the intensity of exceptionally small tropical cyclones; this storm's core isn't much bigger than a healthy supercell. Beryl is tiny, and tiny storms have a history of wildly fluctuating in intensity. On paper, at least, it seems like the storm shouldn't have achieved its current strength. But Beryl is small enough that it found itself a pocket of favorable-enough conditions and took full advantage of what it found.

The storm's structure should insulate it just enough from wind shear and dry air that it could survive into the Caribbean before starting to weaken and fall apart. However, the NHC notes in its latest forecast that predictions are more uncertain than usual because of the hurricane's tiny size. Tiny storms are fragile. Beryl brings to mind Hurricane Danny from 2015, a similarly tiny storm in roughly the same spot that reached major hurricane strength before collapsing as it approached the Lesser Antilles.

Storms like this are humbling for meteorologists and weather enthusiasts alike. I was wrong. They were wrong. We were all wrong. (Crow all around!) Nobody initially expected this storm to strengthen the way it did and they're probably lying to make themselves look good if they tell you otherwise. Predicting the weather is still an inexact science and there's a lot for even the experts to learn about how and why tropical cyclones suddenly intensify, especially itty bitty ones like Beryl.

[Satellite: NOAA | Maps: me]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.