(This article, first published at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, was updated at 6:00 a.m. Thursday with the latest advisory.)
Just like that, hurricane season 2018 is in full swing. And while the remnants of Gordon continue to weaken over the lower Mississippi Valley, the focus shifts to a new threat: Hurricane Florence. This storm has a small chance to become a problem for the East Coast next week.
On Wednesday morning, Florence became the first major hurricane, rated Category 3 or higher, to develop during the current Atlantic season. Its peak winds climbed to over 130 mph Wednesday afternoon, making it a Category 4 storm, before it weakened overnight and returned to a Category 3 storm.
More than 1,050 miles from the nearest land mass, Florence isn’t an immediate concern — yet. But the powerful storm, boasting a tightly coiled wall of thunderstorms surrounding its pinhole eye, does bear watching. Florence’s intensity is forecast to fluctuate over the next several days, but it is expected to remain a Category 3 storm for the next several days.
During this time, Florence will continue to meander northwestward, possibly inching dangerously close to Bermuda by the latter half of the weekend. After that, the storm’s exact track and strength become major wild cards in the face of compounding uncertainties.
Forecasting a storm’s position more than a few days into the future is like playing a game of Plinko or pachinko. At first, it’s pretty easy to analytically figure out where your chip or ball will go. The “cone” of possible outcomes is pretty narrow. But as time goes on, that range of possibilities expands to encompass more real estate. The cone grows. The same is true here.
The National Hurricane Center’s average error from 2010 to 2017 in the predicted position of a storm is 40 to 50 miles, but that balloons to about 220 miles five days into the future and much greater after that. So while awareness and preparation are good, betting on a specific outcome this early has very poor odds.
There is a chance that Florence could become a big issue in just over a week. A group of model simulations depicting possible tracks have begun to show the possibility of East Coast impacts — especially near the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that there is an equal shot of Florence passing far enough offshore that the United States sees nothing more than sunshine and rough surf. That enormous variety of end results is the nature of forecasting a week or more into the future. If the United States were to see something, it would be in about eight days.
A storm in Florence’s current position has never struck the United States in recorded history. However, the prevailing weather pattern could provide an exception. A giant ridge of high pressure over the North Atlantic has a chance to steer the storm toward the U.S. mainland unless a trough of low pressure is able to capture the storm late this weekend and turn it more out to sea.
Eric Webb, a graduate student in meteorology, pointed out on Twitter that the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane took an unusual track over Bermuda into the Mid-Atlantic coast. That storm pushed a massive tidal surge of 11 to 12 feet up to the Potomac River, flooding parts of Washington. While Florence is positioned somewhat to the north of that 1933 storm, the specter of it taking a similar track needs to be carefully monitored.
It’s far too early to worry about a storm making landfall, but it’s never too soon to be prepared. Have trees that could fall on your house during a windstorm? Trim them now. Declutter drains and gutters. Make sure you have an emergency kit with supplies for at least three days. There are basic things that anyone in the Atlantic Basin should already be doing during hurricane season. This is an excellent opportunity to do them.
All things considered, we’re right on track for where we should be — the average date of the Atlantic’s first major hurricane is Sept. 4. And while the season may not feature as many storms as 2017, it takes only one to change your life.
Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow contributed to this article.