Climate experts increased the number of named storms they expect to see this season and upped the chances of above normal activity as Mother Nature’s mood turns mischievous closer to hurricane prime time.
The Climate Prediction Center released its new storm forecast Thursday, which calls for for 12 to 17 named storms, 5 to 8 hurricanes and 2 to 4 major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher.
While the new prediction isn’t exceptionally higher than the May forecast when 10 to 16 named storms were predicted, the center also increased the probability of a more active season from 30 to 35 percent and is calling for the busiest season since 2012.
Hurricane season peaks late August through mid-October.
“Conditions are in place that favor a more active season and that’s the bottom line,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. “The outlook is really a reflection of what will happen during the peak months of the hurricane season.”
The demise of El Nino, weak vertical wind shear, feeble trade winds over the central tropical Atlantic and a strong west African monsoon are all contributing to the hike in storm numbers.
La Nina, once given a 75 percent chance of blazing onto the climatological scene, is now expected to be only a weak event by fall and winter with little to contribute to storm season. La Nina doesn’t necessarily encourage more hurricanes, but isn’t one to knock them away either.
“La Nina does favor a more active season, that’s only one player in the game,” Bell said. “It’s only one climate factor.”
An average hurricane season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
And it’s important to note that the new storm numbers include the five named storms that have already come and gone this year – Hurricane Alex, tropical storms Bonnie, Colin, Danielle and Hurricane Earl.
That means up to 12 more named storms could form and six hurricanes if the high end of the center’s prediction holds true.
“The fear a lot of people have is we may get these storms fast and furious,” said Dan Kottlowski, a hurricane expert with the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather. “We saw how things exploded across the Pacific a few weeks ago.”
In a five week period beginning July 2, the Pacific has burned through five tropical storms and four hurricanes.
The Atlantic basin storms to date have been mostly unremarkable for the U.S. Hurricane Earl, which made landfall in Belize on August 4 is being blamed for at least 40 deaths as its remnants triggered landslides in Mexico.
“Most of the U.S. is probably saying ‘What hurricane season?’” Kottlowski said. “But when you look at the numbers we’re right on schedule to be near normal and all we need is a couple more storms to be above normal.”
Those additional storms aren’t expected to fire up through at least next week. Kottlowski said most forecast models show debilitating wind shear – differences in wind speed and/or direction with height in the atmosphere – in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.
“Those conditions will change,” Kottlowski said. “Everyone believes it will become quite active during the height of the season.”
UPDATE, 2:55 p.m.: The area of low pressure currently on Florida’s Panhandle now has a 10 percent chance of formation into a tropical system within the next 48 hours, according to the National Hurricane Center.
It retains its 20 percent development chance over the next five days.
ORIGINAL STORY: An area of low pressure is expected to cozy up to Florida’s Panhandle this weekend or early next week and could become a tropical system as it lingers over the warm Gulf waters.
The National Hurricane Center is giving the disturbance a 20 percent chance of development over the next five days.
While the system has only a low chance of forming into something more, National Weather Service forecasters said it could bring showers to South Florida, breaking up a mass of Saharan dust that is wafting into the area.
Cooler temperatures high in the atmosphere and increasing moisture from the counterclockwise flow of the disturbance is expected to increase rain chances beginning Monday and into Tuesday.
The rain would be welcome by coastal Palm Beach County, which was identified in a drought report Thursday as having abnormally dry conditions. The area is down more than 5 inches of rain for the season, which began June 1.
Models are showing plenty of moisture and very low wind shear in the Big Bend region of Florida where hurricane center forecasters identified the system as possibly forming.
It’s usually a winter occurrence, but as Earl’s counterclockwise flow moves over the region, it could force strong winds through the gap. That funneling action can increase wind speeds, just like putting your thumb over a hose nozzle can increase the force of water coming out.
National Hurricane Center forecasters said this morning that some forecast models show a tropical cyclone developing off the Pacific coast of Mexico during the next five days.
While this won’t be Earl, it will likely be associated with the remnants of the storm.
Earl made landfall just southwest of Belize City at about 2 a.m. with sustained maximum winds of 80 mph.
The biggest concern is with rain, that could reach up to 18 inches in some areas.
The National Hurricane Center said this morning that forecast models expect a tropical cyclone to develop off the west coast of Mexico in a few days. This system will likely contain remnants of Earl, but is not a direct continuation of the storm.
Hurricane Earl is the first hurricane to make landfall in Belize since 2010 when Category 2 Hurricane Richard hit. That storm did more than $17 million in damage and wiped out an entire season’s grapefruit crop.
Hurricane Earl became the first hurricane of the 2016 Atlantic season Wednesday, tentatively picking up speed late in the day after gorging on the warm waters of the Western Caribbean.
While Earl is noteworthy as the first hurricane of the season, which begins June 1, it is actually the second hurricane of the year, following January’s oddball Hurricane Alex.
Earl is not expected to maintain hurricane status for long, weakening quickly to a tropical depression as it moves over land.
In its 11 p.m. advisory, Earl’s top winds remain at 75 mph. The center was located about 40 miles east of Belize City, and the storm was moving west at about 15 mph. Earl’s minimum central pressure was 984 mb.
Forecasters expect 8 to 12 inches of rain over parts of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and the Yucatan peninsula through Thursday night, with isolated spots getting as much as 18 inches of rain.
Update, 8 p.m.: Hurricane Earl’s rain bands have started to spread over Belize, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters say the storm’s top winds remain at 75 mph and it continues on its westerly path at 14 mph. Landfall is expected during the overnight hours.
Update, 5:05 p.m.: Hurricane Earl has formed in the Caribbean.
A special statement from the National Hurricane Center posted just after the 5 p.m. update says a NOAA Hurricane Hunter plane has found winds of 75 mph.
Earl is the first hurricane of the 2016 hurricane season and the second of the year, following oddball Alex in January.
Previous story: Tropical Storm Earl is making a beeline for Belize, a cruise ship hub and coastal country that has not been hit by a hurricane since 2010.
While still tropical storm-strength with 70-mph winds as of 5 p.m., Earl is forecast to strengthen before landfall and could become a Category 1 hurricane as it nears Belize City.
The National Hurricane Center expects Earl’s maximum sustained winds to reach 80 mph as it reaches the coast late tonight or early Thursday morning.
Earl is running out of time to gain hurricane status, but forecasters remain confident it still has room to intensify. NOAA and Air Force hurricane hunter plans are continuing missions into the storm.
Weather Underground co-founder and meteorologist Jeff Masters said Earl should be helped by near by deep warm water near the shore. While sea-surface temperatures of at least 80 degrees are needed for tropical cyclone formation and development, deeply warm waters help sustain storms even more because the water churned up is also warm.
“Typically, storms that approach landfall begin to undergo interaction with land that causes a slowdown in intensification or weakening,” Masters said in a blog. “However, storms in the Western Caribbean often undergo intensification right up until landfall, due to the extremely warm waters with high heat content that lie along the coast.”
While wind speeds were expected to peak at 80 mph, hurricane experts were just as concerned Wednesday with the amount of water that could be pushed ashore by Earl’s pounding waves. Although Belize City doesn’t suffer the same shallow run-up of the continental shelf like Tampa, it is bisected by a river that could funnel water far inland.
The National Hurricane Center forecast storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 4 to 6 feet above normal tide levels in Belize and the eastern Yucatan Peninsula.
“We’re concerned and are really preparing because it’s better to be safe than sorry,” said Sharon Maddison, owner of the Mariposa Restaurant and Beach Suites, which is on the water in Placencia, Belize. “I’m going all out boarding up.”
In 2001, Category 4 Hurricane Iris destroyed 95 percent of the buildings in the nascent tourist hub of Placencia, which is south of Belize City.
Maddison said many Placencia residents are taking Earl in stride, but with 16 guests in her beachfront villas, she spent Wednesday hanging plywood. Just South of Mariposa, Francis Ford Coppola’s Turtle Inn was evacuating guests to a sister resort in the western part of the country.
“Maybe the locals are not as worried,” Maddison said. “They probably think I’m a crazy lady.”
The storm’s minimum central pressure dipped to 989 this morning, as measured by a NOAA Hurricane Hunter aircraft.
A hurricane warning is in effect for Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico south to the border of Belize and Guatemala. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area.
In the case of Earl, hurricane conditions should occur within the next 24 hours.
Hurricane center forecasters are warning that tropical storm conditions are expected to reach Honduras this morning, making outside preparations difficult and dangerous.
One of the biggest concerns with Earl is torrential showers that could dump as much as 12 inches of rain over portions of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. Isolated areas may see rain as high as 16 inches.
Forecasters expect Earl’s maximum wind speeds to reach 80 mph in about 24 hours.
A hurricane warning is in effect for Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico, south to border between Belize and Guatemala.
Earl’s forward reduction in speed means it is spending more time over very warm waters, which feed tropical system development.
Tropical systems need sea surface temperatures of at least 80 degrees to maintain strength. In the central and western Caribbean Sea, the temperatures are closer to 84 degrees, especially right next to the coast of Belize.
The fifth named storm of the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season teased the Caribbean for days as it teetered on tropical cyclone status, but failed to make the critical connection of a closed circulation until Tuesday.
By the time it became Tropical Storm Earl shortly before noon, the system was already blamed for six deaths in the Dominican Republic, and critics on social media were pressing the National Hurricane Center to make the cyclone official so alerts could be issued. The storm is no threat to the U.S.
Jamaica and the Cayman Islands chose not to wait for an official meteorological defnition to be met before alerting residents.
For the first time that 17-year hurricane center veteran James Franklin can remember, the two island nations issued tropical storm watches and warnings before the disturbance earned tropical storm status from the National Hurricane Center.
As of 5 a.m. Wednesday, Earl was up to 65 mph and expected to become a hurricane by the time it made landfall in Belize late Wednesday or early Thursday.
“If the storm is right next door to you, what are you going to do?” said Karry Powery, a meteorologist with the Cayman Islands National Weather Service, which canceled its hurricane watch Tuesday afternoon. “In terms of lead time, we don’t want the government and the public to just jump up and have to make last minute preparations. That is problematic.”
And it’s a problem the National Hurricane Center is working to fix.
Beginning as early as the 2017 hurricane season, the center hopes to have the ability to issue watches and warnings for disturbances prior to official cyclone genesis. The alerts would be for “potential” tropical cyclones.
“Every time a disturbance produces tropical cyclone-force winds and threatens land, there are always some calls for the NHC to classify the system as a tropical storm, even though it isn’t one,” said Franklin, who is chief of the center’s hurricane specialists unit.
To gain the title of tropical storm, a cluster of thunderstorms must be producing winds of 39 mph or higher and have a closed center of circulation. Although National Hurricane Center forecasters were noting as early as Monday that islands could experience tropical-storm force winds, they weren’t seeing that closed circulation on satellite images.
Until the tropical cyclone status is earned, protocol says no watches or warnings are to be issued.
The predicament with Tropical Storm Earl isn’t new. A similar thing happened in 2015 with Tropical Storm Bill. Forecasters were relatively confident the cluster of thunderstorms would become an organized storm, but couldn’t issue advisories until it met the textbook definition of a cyclone.
By the time Bill gained the right characteristics, it was nearly on top of the Texas coast. A tropical storm warning was issued just 12 hours before landfall.
In a blog Franklin wrote following criticism of the center’s forecasting of Bill, he described the delicate balance the center has to create between science, safety and credibility.
“Couldn’t NHC have called the disturbance a tropical storm anyway, in the interest of enhanced preparedness?” Franklin wrote. “Yes, but what if the disturbance never becomes a tropical storm…naming it early risks the credibility of the National Weather Service and NHC, and endangers a trust we’ve worked for decades to establish.”
Bob Henson, a meteorologist and blogger with Weather Underground, supported the hurricane center’s wariness to designate a tropical system a cyclone when it really isn’t. He said 2012’s Hurricane Sandy initiated another title debate about whether hurricane warnings should continue to be issued if a storm is downgraded to a post-tropical low before landfall, as Sandy was.
In 2013, the NHC modified its guidelines, allowing hurricane warnings to remain in effect for post-tropical systems.
“It may seem a debate about semantics, but there is a valid scientific question behind it,” Henson said. “In both cases, I believe the idea is to allow NHC forecasters a bit more room to make a subjective decision as to whether a particular advisory is needed, even if a particular storm does not meet well-established, objective criteria for that advisory.”
Update 7:45 p.m. The strong tropical wave about 200 miles southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, still has organized thunderstorms, but has yet to achieve a closed circulation needed for tropical cyclone formation.
Regardless of classification, the National Hurricane Center says in its 8 p.m. outlook that locally heavy rainfall and gusty winds will continue affecting parts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti tonight before reaching Jamaica and the Cayman Islands overnight or tomorrow. Forecasters also say conditions remain ripe for strengthening, and they put the chances at the system forming into a tropical cyclone by Wednesday evening at 80 percent, with a 90 percent chance of formation within 5 days.
The system, even if does become Tropical Storm Earl, is not expected to make a significant impact on Florida’s weather.
Update 4:50 p.m. The National Hurricane Center says the Air Force hurricane hunter plane scheduled to investigate tropical wave 97-L had to turn around because of maintenance issues.
Marnee Losurdo, chief public affairs officer for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, said a minor fuel system “anomaly” occurred and the Hurricane Hunter crew opted to return to their base at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.
Forecasters have given the wave a 90 percent chance of development over the next five days, but seemed confident it would have tropical cyclone-force winds by the time it reached Jamaica and the Cayman Islands tonight.
Storm watchers are eager to get flight-level data that will show better measurements of wind speed and whether a surface circulation has formed.
Update 2 p.m.: A strong tropical wave about 275 miles east-southeast of Jamaica continues to have well organized thunderstorms, but lacks a closed center that would make it a tropical cyclone.
The National Hurricane Center at its 2 p.m. update is giving the system a 90 percent chance of development over the next five days.
An Air Force Reserve Reconnaissance flight is on its way this afternoon to investigate the disturbance.
Forecasters are certain enough that this will become the year’s 5th named storm that they said tropical storm conditions are likely to occur over Jamaica by this evening, and could reach the Cayman Islands overnight.
Update 8 a.m.: Forecasters are giving a tropical wave in the Caribbean Sea a 90 percent chance of development over the next five days.
According to the 8 a.m. update, the wave continues to show signs of organization and satellite data has shown the system is producing 40 to 45 mph winds.
The National Hurricane Center said if development continues, the system could become Tropical Storm Earl later today or tonight.
While no threat to Florida, the system is expected to bring heavy rainfall and strong winds to the Dominican Republic and Haiti today. Jamaica should expect tropical storm conditions this afternoon and evening.
Forecasters said this morning, the wave, which is moving west at up to 25 mph, has experienced an increase in thunderstorm activity and has winds measuring up to 45 mph in the northern and eastern areas of the system.
If the development continues, a tropical storm could form later today when the wave moves into the central Caribbean Sea.
The system, formally dubbed Invest 97-L, is no threat to Florida, but as of Sunday night, the National Hurricane Center was giving it a 70 percent chance of building into something more organized over the next five days. If it musters named status, it would be Earl, and mark the first Atlantic basin tropical cyclone to form since Tropical Storm Danielle limped into central Mexico on June 20.
The system was moving at a swift 20 to 25 mph on Sunday — a speed that inhibits organization — but AccuWeather hurricane forecasters said the forward momentum should slow by midweek as the overall environment for the storm improves.
Sea surface temperatures, which must be 80 degrees for a tropical cyclone to form, are a toasty 86 or higher in its path. It is also heading into an area where wind shear will put up less of a fight against the system strengthening.
“We do think this will develop into a tropical storm and perhaps even gain hurricane strength two to three days from now,” said Jack Boston, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather. “It will stay well south of Florida and probably make landfall somewhere over the Yucatan.”
The last hurricane to spin up in the Atlantic basin was short-lived Kate, which gained hurricane strength north of Bermuda on Nov. 11 but was downgraded to tropical storm status less than 24 hours later.
For South Florida, the passing wave could bring needed rain to some parched coastal areas of Palm Beach County. July ended the month with a rain deficit of about 3 inches in coastal metro areas, according to the South Florida Water Management District. The region is down nearly 5 inches for the season, which began June 1.
Update 10:34 a.m.: Tropical Storm Danielle’s winds have strengthened to 45 mph, according to the latest update from the National Hurricane Center.
The storm is about 105 miles north of Veracruz, Mexico and heading west at 7 mph.
Little change in wind speed is expected before landfall later today. The storm should quickly dissipate over land.
Previous story: Tropical Storm Danielle has formed off the coast of Mexico, making it the earliest fourth-named storm in history.
Danielle beats the previous record held by Debby, which formed on June 23, 2012.
The National Hurricane Center says Danielle’s winds have strengthened to 40 mph as it nears Veracruz, Mexico, and could increase in speed before landfall. The storm’s minimum central pressure is 1008 mb.
While Danielle isn’t expected to last long after hitting the coast, it is following a trend this hurricane season of early storms.
Tropical Storm Colin was the earliest third-named storm on record, forming up June 5 before hitting Florida’s panhandle as a messy system that brought high storm surge and flooding rains.
As of 8 a.m., hurricane center forecasters said Danielle has tropical storm force winds extending out 40 miles from center and that rains are already hitting Mexico. While not expected to impact the U.S., it could send waves into Texas that will increase rip current risks.
The biggest concern with Danielle in Mexico is rainfall of up to 15 inches in higher terrain areas that could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides.
Update 5 a.m.: Tropical depression four was expected to strengthen into a storm by this morning, but hurricane center forecasters said there is now limited tie for organization to occur before it hits mainland Mexico.
At 5 a.m., the storm still had winds of 35 mph, just shy of tropical storm strength, and was heading west at 7 mph about 70 miles east of Veracruz.
“Some slight strengthening is forecast, and the depression could become a tropical storm before it makes landfall in Mexico later today,” forecasters noted.
If it becomes a named storm, it would be Danielle. It would be the earliest fourth named storm on record.
The system is entering an area of lighter wind shear, increasing the chances that it could pop up to tropical storm strength, but time is running out for it to make history.
Update 8 p.m.: National Hurricane Center forecasters expect a tropical depression off the east coast of Mexico to become a tropical storm later tonight or early Monday, making it the earliest fourth named storm on record.
TD4 has formed in the Bay of Campeche. Would be earliest 4th named storm on record if reaches tropical storm status pic.twitter.com/FZuQJ7DZfn
While the storm should be short lived, it is expected to send six to 10 inches of rain with up to 15 inches possible in some areas of the Mexican states of Veracruz, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, Hidalgo and northern Puebla.
Meteorologists are warning of life-threatening flash floods and mud slides.