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The Eddy Effect

As hurricanes go, Bret began the weekend as a pretty meek one. But by Sunday it had transformed itself into a tiger, leaping from a category two to a category four in just a few hours. Something happened, and scientists have a suspicion that it's something known as the "eddy effect".

There is a deep puddle of warm water in the Gulf -- the eddy. Late yesterday Bret passed right over it and that's just when the storm intensified, reports CBS News Correspondent Jeffrey Kofman.

"Warm water fuels a hurricane. The eddy is full of fuel," says Nick Shay, an oceanographer at the University of Miami.

That's exactly what happened in 1995 when Hurricane Opal crashed into the Florida panhandle. Just before Opal hit, its moderate winds intensified from 98 to 150 miles an hour. Opal had passed over an eddy.

Hurricane Bret passes over an eddy.

The eddies are constantly being formed as the warm Caribbean current winds through the Gulf. The giant eddies break off and slowly spin across, taking months to hit the West Coast where they disintegrate. Using high tech temperature gauges scientists are now tracking the eddy's impact on hurricanes.

"They don't always coincide with hurricane season," Shay says. "This year it did and it's bigger than usual."

Studying the "eddy effect" is not simply about proving theory, it's about helping scientists predict the strength and the path of hurricanes so that people have time to prepare.

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