TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Hurricane Ian is making its way toward the Gulf of Mexico and is forecast to approach Florida in the coming days.

Ian is currently about 100 miles west of Grand Cayman and 240 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba with 80 mph maximum sustained winds. It’s expected to be in the Gulf of Mexico by Tuesday morning as a potential major hurricane.

“In the next 24 hours, we could see this go from a Category 1 hurricane to a Category 3 hurricane near Cuba,” WFLA Meteorologist Leigh Spann said.

Ian is currently over very warm water and going through a rapid intensification period. So what is rapid intensification – and why is it so dangerous?

What is rapid intensification?

Rapid intensification is a relatively rare process that a maturing tropical cyclone can go through, in the right conditions. The National Hurricane Center defines it as “an increase in the maximum sustained winds of a tropical cyclone of at least 30 kt (35 mph) in a 24 hour period.”

The rate at which a storm can organize and strengthen is limited by multiple environmental factors. A tropical cyclone needs very warm ocean water temperatures, light winds throughout the vertical layers of the atmosphere and moist air surrounding the storm, at the very least, according to Meteorologist Amanda Holly. There are still many unknowns about why and how certain storms go through it, making it difficult to forecast.

These three factors don’t always align, which typically slows the intensification process and makes rapid intensification a rare event. However, it does happen and it seems to be happening more regularly in recent years, according to several studies.

Why rapid intensification is so dangerous

A rapid intensification cycle can be very difficult to predict with some storms undergoing a cycle without all the necessary factors. Many of the forecast models never predict these cycles before they happen, even when the atmosphere is in a prime position for it. This can leave areas scrambling to prepare for a storm that is much stronger than originally forecast making it a highly researched topic among atmospheric scientists.

The average error of a storm’s wind speeds at landfall is much larger than the average error of the landfall location. In fact, the average error on the five-day forecast cone given by the National Hurricane Center is a category above or below at any given point. Researchers at the NHC along with many scientists continue to study the processes of a strengthening hurricane to better understand how they intensify and hopefully more accurately predict how strong a storm might get.

Tracking Hurricane Ian

>> Latest updates on Hurricane Ian

>> Live Max Defender 8 radar

>> Tampa Bay evacuations

>> Find your evacuation zone

>> Max Defender 8 Hurricane Guide

>> School closures

>> Where to find sandbags

>> Closures and cancellations

>> Download the Max Defender 8 app