Hurricane Charlie, for example, went from a category 1 storm to a category 4 hurricane in less that 24 hours as it hit Florida in 2004.
Every minute counted during Hurricane Charlie, as Floridians tried to batten down their homes or escape the path of the intense winds and rain.
"Now we have an observational tool that uses existing data that can set off a red flag for forecasters, so that when they see this convective ring feature, there's a high probability that a storm may undergo rapid intensification," Nesbitt said. "This is really the first way that we can do this in real time rather than guessing with models or statistical predictions."
The microwave image satellites forecasters can use to look for these tell-tale rings and bull's-eyes orbit the Earth once every three to six hours. That frequency means the images can be used help meteorologists watch changes and predict peaks in storm intensity about 30 hours ahead of time.
"The satellite gives up as snapshot of what's taking place," Harnos said. "We know what's going on, but not how those changes are occurring to end up in the pattern that we're seeing."
That limitation led to the next step in the research.
"So what we're working on now is some computer modeling of hurricanes, both real storms and idealized storms, to see dynamically, structurally, what's taking place and what changes are occurring to produce these patterns that we see in the satellite data," Harnos said.
IMAGE 1: Cyclone Catarina, as seen from the International Space Station, March 26 2004, near Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons)
IMAGE 2: University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Stephen Nesbitt, left, and graduate student Daniel Harnos analyzed passive microwave satellite data to identify telltale structural rings in tropical storms that are about to intensify into hurricanes. (L. Brian Stauffer)
IMAGE 3: Port Sulphur, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. (Wikimedia Commons).
IMAGE 4: Damage from Hurricane Charlie, Wachula, FL, April 27, 2005. (FEMA Photo Library)