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Tropical storm Ian forms, forecast to hit Florida as hurricane

The National Hurricane Center forecasts a significant hurricane near Florida’s west coast by Wednesday.

The National Hurricane Center declared that the tropical depression that formed Friday morning had intensified into a tropical storm by Friday night, earning the name Ian. Meteorologists are expecting it to quickly intensify late this weekend before striking Cuba late Monday into Tuesday and then barreling north — probably toward the west coast of Florida, at or near the strength of a major hurricane.

Officials are warning residents in the projected path to ensure that they have a hurricane plan in place and to closely monitor updates to the forecast.

As of Saturday, the National Weather Service said there is an increasing likelihood of multiple life-threatening hazards emerging early next week as Ian approaches the Florida peninsula — including storm surge, hurricane-force winds and flooding. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) expanded his emergency order Saturday afternoon to cover the entire state.

Ian could be as strong as a Category 3 hurricane when it approaches Florida on Tuesday into Wednesday, although the intensity forecast is uncertain.

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

Ian is moving west at about 15 mph, officials said Saturday morning, with winds remaining near 45 mph and higher gusts.

The forecast track has Ian traveling across the central Caribbean Sea on Saturday, passing southwest of Jamaica on Sunday, and then moving near or over the Cayman Islands on Sunday night and early Monday, officials said. The next few days will see “significant strengthening,” according to the forecast.

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It appears likely that this system will become the first hurricane to strike the mainland United States this year, and watches are possible by the end of the weekend for parts of Florida and the Florida Keys.

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For now, the storm is still about two days away from its first landfall in Cuba. Ahead of the storm’s approach, National Weather Service offices in the central and eastern United States are launching extra weather balloons to collect added data to improve forecasts.

The tropical storm now

On Friday at 11 p.m. Eastern, Ian was 385 miles east of Jamaica. Winds were around 40 mph, just above the 39 mph threshold needed for the system to earn a name as a tropical storm.

Most of the storminess is displaced to the west of a low-level swirl that has become the system’s center of circulation. This is due to wind shear, or a change of wind speed and/or direction with height.

That shear is stemming from “outflow,” or exhaust, from Hurricane Fiona a few thousand miles to the northeast. Until that shear relaxes, the tropical storm will be teetering off-kilter and its development will be slow.

The Hurricane Center wrote in its Friday 11 p.m. discussion that “the system remains sheared,” but that the shear “is forecast to decrease during the next 6 to 12 hours.”

A hurricane watch was issued for the Cayman Islands and a tropical storm watch for Jamaica on Friday afternoon.

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“Intensification is expected to be gradual during the next 36 hours while Ian gets better organized in a lower-shear environment,” the Hurricane Center wrote.

Forecast Sunday onward

On Sunday, the system will slip beneath a zone of clockwise-spinning high pressure aloft. That will help to evacuate air away from the system’s center at high altitudes, enhancing upward motion within the developing storm and fostering additional strengthening. That also means more moisture-rich air in contact with the sea surface will be able to enter the storm from below.

The waters of the northwestern Caribbean are very warm, replete with thermal energy to fuel potentially explosive strengthening. That could easily help the system intensify to a Category 2 or stronger hurricane before it strikes Cuba on Monday night into early Tuesday.

Before reaching Cuba, the storm is forecast to pass just south and then west of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, where four to eight inches of rain could fall and trigger flash flooding and mudslides.

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

While the gulf is extremely warm, it’s possible some dry air and wind shear in the storm’s vicinity could limit the storm’s intensification. Still, the Hurricane Center projects that the storm will be a Category 3 hurricane Wednesday morning while centered very near Florida’s west coast.

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It is too soon to say exactly where along Florida’s coast the storm might strike. There is still an outside chance that the storm track shifts west, more toward the central gulf, or toward the southern tip of Florida or even offshore to the peninsula’s east.

After the storm potentially strikes Florida, it could then move up the Eastern Seaboard or just offshore, affecting coastal areas of the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and even the Northeast later in the week. But there is much lower confidence in the forecast beyond Wednesday.