Storm forming in Caribbean is forecast to hit Florida as hurricane

Confidence is mounting that a tropical weather system developing in the Caribbean will intensify into a hurricane on Monday and hit Florida around Wednesday.

The system has not yet been named, but the National Hurricane Center has said a tropical depression, the precursor to a tropical storm, formed Friday morning about 600 miles east of Jamaica. Meteorologists expect it to quickly intensify this weekend before hitting Cuba late Monday to Tuesday and then hurtling north — likely toward Florida’s west coast.

The storm could be as strong as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane as it approaches Florida Tuesday through Wednesday, although the intensity forecast is uncertain.

As early as Tuesday, tropical storm conditions could begin over the Florida Keys and South Florida.

The storm has the potential to cause “significant effects from storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall,” the Hurricane Center wrote Friday. “Residents … should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place and closely monitor forecast updates over the weekend.”

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The storm could be named Hermine or Ian, depending on whether this depression or another one just west of Africa occurs first.

It seems likely that this system will become the first hurricane to hit the mainland United States this year, and by the end of the weekend, there could be watches for parts of Florida and the Florida Keys.

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For now, the storm is still about 72 hours away from making its first landfall in Cuba. In anticipation of the storm’s approach, National Weather Service offices in the central and eastern United States are launching additional weather balloons to retrieve additional data to improve forecasts.

On Friday morning, the depression was about 500 miles east of Jamaica. Winds were about 35 mph, or below the 39 mph threshold needed to name the system as a tropical storm.

An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance aircraft was dispatched Friday morning to fly in and examine the fledgling system.

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On visible satellites, it is clear that all storminess has moved westward from a low vortex that has become the actual center of circulation of the system. This is due to wind shear, or a change in wind speed and/or direction with height. Eastern winds get stronger with height, so the system is tilted slightly.

That shear is the result of “outflow,” or exhaust, from Hurricane Fiona a few thousand miles to the northeast. Until those scissors relax on Sunday, the tropical depression will become unbalanced and unable to fully develop. After that, however, conditions become much more favorable for intensification.

This is what Hurricane Fiona’s surf looked like from a 15m high wave

On Sunday, the shear plaguing the tropical depression will weaken significantly. At the same time, the system slides up under a zone of clockwise rotating high pressure. That will help evacuate air from the center of the system at a high attitude, amplifying uplift within the developing storm and promoting additional reinforcement. That also means that more moisture-rich air in contact with the sea surface can enter the storm from below.

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The waters of the northwestern Caribbean are very warm, brimming with thermal energy to fuel potentially explosive reinforcement. That could easily help the system intensify to a Category 2 hurricane or stronger before hitting Cuba. Right now, the National Hurricane Center is forecasting landfall west of Havana early Tuesday.

Before reaching Cuba, the storm is expected to pass just south and then west of Jamaica, where 10 to 20 inches of rain could fall and cause flash flooding and mudslides.

As the storm crosses Cuba on Tuesday, some weakening is likely before the storm bends northeast over the warm waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where it should regain some strength.

Although the wave is extremely warm, possible dry air and wind shear near the storm could limit the storm’s intensification. Still, the Hurricane Center predicts the storm will be a Category 3 hurricane Wednesday morning, while it is very close to Florida’s west coast.

It’s too early to say exactly where along the Florida coast the storm could hit. It’s still five days away, and the forecasts tracked so far in advance contain major errors. There is still a chance from the outside that the storm track will shift westward, more towards the central gulf, or towards the southern tip of Florida or even offshore to the east of the peninsula.

After the storm may hit Florida, it could then move along the East Coast or just offshore, hitting coastal areas of the Southeast, the mid-Atlantic and even the Northeast later in the week. But there is much less confidence in the forecast after Wednesday.

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