Whether seen from within or from space, Hurricane Lee is a monster. There are still many unknowns about the storm's path and potential impacts on land. A bold crew of Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters flew a plane into Lee's eye on Thursday, capturing some impressive video from within the belly of the beast. The footage shows thick clouds around the eye, lit up by flashes of lightning.
The Hurricane Hunters are officially known as the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron. The group operates out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. Specially equipped Super Hercules aircraft are designed to weather hurricane extremes and gather data on a storm's winds, temperature and structure.
The view from inside the storm complements what satellites are seeing from far above. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operate the Suomi NPP weather satellite. It captured a view of Lee on Thursday that shows the storm swirling over the Atlantic Ocean.
The National Hurricane Center declared Lee a Category 5 storm on Thursday. Hurricanes are ranked from 1 to 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale based on the storm's maximum sustained wind speed. A Category 5 storm has winds of 157 miles per hour or higher. A major storm like this has the potential to cause catastrophic damage to homes, structures, trees and power grids. According to the NHC, a Category 5 hurricane impact can leave an area uninhabitable for weeks or months.
While Lee is for certain a major storm, its future is hard to predict. "It is way too soon to know what level of impact, if any, Lee might have along the US East Coast, Atlantic Canada or Bermuda late next week, particularly since the hurricane is expected to slow down considerably over the southwestern Atlantic," the NHC said in a Friday morning update.
The NHC warned of a likelihood of dangerous surf and rip currents in the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas and Bermuda through the weekend. That warning extends to the US East Coast beginning Sunday.
Hurricane Lee represents one of the most powerful storms possible. Research has tied the climate crisis to more extreme and destructive Atlantic storms. NOAA forecasters had originally expected a normal hurricane season for 2023, but it increased the prediction to "above normal" in August, citing record-warm sea surface temperatures. The new outlook calls for up to five major hurricanes like Lee. The Atlantic hurricane season runs through the end of November, so Lee likely won't be the last monster storm to rage across the ocean.