What Made Hurricane Matthew so Memorable Meteorologically?

October 10, 2016

Florida's near 11-year drought of landfalling hurricanes may have ended when Hermine came ashore 23 miles south of Tallahassee on September 2, 2016, but the most memorable U.S. hurricane of the season will most likely be Matthew. After a long and devastating passage across Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas as a major hurricane, the storm system rode up the coast of Florida and made landfall with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph— just over Category 1 hurricane status—southeast of McClellanville, South Carolina, on October 8.

Hurricane Matthew is certainly a remarkable storm system in many ways, described by Forbes as an overachiever. Atlantic hurricanes typically form from tropical waves moving westward from the African coast. Matthew formed from a particularly vigorous wave and become a tropical storm as it approached the Windward Islands. The National Hurricane Center's first advisory for Tropical Storm Matthew recorded unusually high winds of 60 mph for such a new tropical storm.

Matthew achieved hurricane status early on September 29 shortly after passing the Windward Islands and then intensified rapidly into a Category 4 hurricane within 24 hours—the third fastest Atlantic intensification on record. In the process Matthew became the first major hurricane to form in the Caribbean since Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the first Category 4 Atlantic hurricane since Hurricane Katia in 2011 to have occurred in September.

Track and intensity of Hurricane Matthew
Map plotting the track and intensity of Hurricane Matthew to October 9, 2016, according to the Saffir–Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. (Source: Cyclonebiskit)

Having become a major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) on September 30, Matthew remained at or above Category 3 until October 7, a span of seven and a half days. Only four hurricanes have remained at this intensity longer in the Atlantic since satellite observations began. Matthew's longevity as a major hurricane was caused by several factors.

Instead of continuing to move westward into the Gulf of Mexico, as most storms deep in the tropics do, Matthew slowed because of very weak steering currents and then began to accelerate and turn abruptly north on October 2. Its track then took it between Haiti and Cuba, clipping both. Crossing either of these mountainous landmasses usually weakens hurricanes severely as they head toward the U.S., but by passing between them Matthew escaped with only minimal disruption to its circulation. It re-emerged into the Atlantic as a Category 3 after making landfall in eastern Cuba and reintensified. Matthew then passed through the Bahamas as a Category 3 and 4 hurricane, only to diminish in intensity as it approached Florida.

While it is normal for storms to move northeastward from those latitudes, the motion typically happens either farther to the east, so there is little threat to land, or some change in direction will ultimately steer the storm onshore as a landfalling hurricane, although this is also rare. In fact, since the mid-1800s, when reliable records were first kept, no major hurricanes have ever made landfall along the upper Atlantic coast of Florida. Because of the orientation of the U.S. coastline and the location and strength of the subtropical high steering Matthew, its track hugged the coastline closely as it moved toward North Carolina, greatly increasing its capacity to inflict damage.

The many unique aspects of Matthew limit the historical and even stochastic analogs that can faithfully represent its features. It was certainly a storm to remember.

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