A hurricane could smash into South Florida this weekend for the first time in more than a decade. It could then charge into the Gulf of Mexico and rapidly intensify, posing a serious danger to the Gulf Coast next week.
Or, the fledgling disturbance may never truly get its act together and hit Florida as a more modest storm. Alternatively, it could even avoid the coastal United States altogether.
The stakes are high for this developing tropical weather system, centered over the Virgin Islands (near St. Croix), but forecast confidence is low.
More than anything, forecasters fear the storm’s potential. Although somewhat disheveled at the moment, it has slowly gotten better organized over the past day. Pressures are falling and, on St. Maarten, winds have gusted to 54 mph.
Hurricane hunter aircraft investigating the storm Wednesday morning identified tropical-storm-force winds.
— NHC Atlantic Ops (@NHC_Atlantic) August 24, 2016
If the storm develops a well-defined circulation center, it will be named Tropical Storm Hermine.
In its forecast path lies pools of unusually warm water over the Bahamas and Gulf of Mexico — around 86 to 88 degrees. Such toasty water can fuel rapid storm intensification if other environmental ingredients are favorable.
The National Hurricane Center says it has a 60 percent chance of developing into a tropical depression or storm in the next 48 hours and an 80 percent chance within five days.
Over the next 48 hours, models generally agree that this disturbance, known as 99L, should pass over or just north of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Whether it stays over the ocean or tracks over the islands is important, because passage over these islands and their mountainous terrain would disrupt its potential development. If it stays over warm waters, its chances of strengthening significantly increase.
Irrespective of its exact track, the disturbance will batter these islands with wind-swept rain.
Beyond 48 hours, when it’s in the vicinity of the southern Bahamas, the forecast becomes even less clear. Generally, the weaker a tropical weather system, the more difficult it is to predict its track far into the future.
If the system heads toward South Florida as a tropical storm or hurricane, as numerous models suggest, conditions would begin to deteriorate as early as Saturday.
Then, it could emerge over the Gulf of Mexico by Sunday or Monday before threatening the Gulf Coast on Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.
However, there are a few models which track it toward the northern Bahamas rather than South Florida and suggest it could then curl back out to sea.
The intensity forecast is even more challenging. Some models predict the disturbance will hardly strengthen while others suggest it will become a hurricane, maybe a strong one.
In general, models have less skill in predicting intensity than they do track. For this particular disturbance, both are wild cards.
The European model, which is the most accurate on average — but not in every case — has consistently tracked the storm over South Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, where it quickly strengthens into a major hurricane.
This is a reasonable worst-case scenario that is plausible and forecasters are especially concerned about. A hurricane has not hit Florida in almost 11 years, the longest such drought on record. Population in the state has boomed since that time, as well as exposed infrastructure.
“We’ve put a lot of stuff along the coast. If we’re in this 10-year drought, loss potentials in some places may now be two times higher than it was a decade ago,” Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told The Post.
Should a hurricane hit Florida and then intensify into a major hurricane (category 3 or higher) over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s possible the storm could also end the nation’s longest stretch on record without a major hurricane landfall.
Both Florida and the entire Gulf Coast should closely monitor this disturbance.