(NEXSTAR) – In photos taken from space, Hurricane Ian – the Category 4 storm poised taking aim at Florida Wednesday – looks absolutely massive. Satellite images and video taken from the International Space Station show dense, swirling clouds so large that they obscure Cuba, half the Gulf of Mexico and all of Florida.
Is the storm really bigger than an entire, pretty large, U.S. state? The answer is pretty complicated, explained Joel Cline, tropical program coordinator with the National Weather Service. It depends on what you consider part of the hurricane, he said.
The area of hurricane-force winds, when Cline spoke with Nexstar Tuesday afternoon, was about 20 to 30 miles wide. The area of tropical storm-force winds was wider, about 140 miles wide.
But satellite images clearly show clouds trailing out from the storm’s center up the East Coast. The front extends all the way up to Canada, Cline said. But folks up there aren’t anywhere near the same threat Florida is facing. That’s what makes it so hard to determine where the hurricane ends, and therefore how big it is.
Cline also cautioned against equating a hurricane’s size with its strength. “When a system is gaining intensity, you have a more intense center of the cloud mass, and the convective area is not as widely dispersed,” he said. “Imagine like an ice skater with their arms out wide, but then the intensity of the center and the movement in the center is when the skater is not as big, and pulls its arms in.”
Winds were picking up as Hurricane Ian strengthened Wednesday morning. Sustained winds neared 155 mph, putting Ian just shy of a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Ian is expected to hit Florida’s west coast Wednesday morning, move over the central part of the state Wednesday night into Thursday morning, and then move back over the Atlantic Ocean late Thursday.