The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has been record-breaking, with five named storms already spinning up and putting on brief devilish dances as summer waxes and the oceans warm. Arthur sideswiped the Outer Banks of the Carolinas in May, while Bertha and Cristobal brought heavy rain to the Southeast and Gulf Coast. Now, a new tropical storm may be brewing, and it is set to bring heavy rainfall, gusty winds and perhaps a low-end tornado risk to parts of the Northeast into the weekend.

Places like New York, Hartford, Providence and Boston are likely to see heavy rain Friday into Saturday, with areas of flooding not out of the question in southern New England. That’s regardless of whether whatever materializes gets a name — but if it does, “Fay” is next up.

If Fay becomes a reality, it would become the earliest “F” storm on record. That would beat out the previous record for earliest sixth named storm — Tropical Storm Franklin, which formed on July 22, 2005 — by more than a week. On average, the first “F" name storm doesn’t form until Sept. 8, two months from now.

The system is disorganized right now, but could blossom by Thursday as it moves over exceptionally warm waters, several degrees warmer than normal, just off North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Dubbed “Invest 98L,” the fledgling disturbance that could soon seed tropical cyclone development was located near the northeast coast of North Carolina early Wednesday. Meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center estimate it has a 70 percent chance of development.

Heavy downpours for coastal Carolinas, Mid-Atlantic

Heavy rainfall was moving north-northeast, approaching the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras on Wednesday morning. Most of the rain looks to miss inland areas, but places that jut out farther east — like Ocracoke, for instance — could pick up an inch or two of rain through Thursday. The heaviest will fall on Wednesday night.

Then the system will likely become better organized, possibly morphing into a tropical storm as it barrels farther north. Its western fringe should scrape the coastal Mid-Atlantic, likely bringing some downpours and thunderstorms to Delmarva and New Jersey late Thursday and Friday.

At the moment, the heaviest rain looks to mostly remain east of the Interstate 95 corridor from Richmond to Baltimore, but some showers are possible in these areas between Thursday night and Friday night.

Jackpot rain totals in the Northeast

The system, probably named Fay by that point, will carry with it an exceptionally moist air mass characteristic of the deep tropics. It’s likely that PWATs, or precipitable water indices, a measure of how much moisture is present in a vertical column of atmosphere, could approach 2.5 inches even into southern New England. That would approach record territory if realized, with the July maximum ever observed in Chatham, Mass., at 2.65 inches.

The National Weather Service in Boston summed it up best when it wrote: “At this point, what we know is that with this kind of moisture plume someone is going to get a lot of rain. Where and when that is will have to be settled in the coming days.”

It’s unclear whether the system would be more tropical or subtropical in nature, the latter possessing a mixed bag of traits belonging to tropical cyclones and nontropical mid-latitude lows.

Timing is a bit uncertain, with some models bringing a quicker dose of rainfall Friday into Friday night as others keep the system around into Saturday. How quickly the system moves will have a bearing on where it goes, a speedier system slipping out to sea but a slower one becoming captured by an approaching low pressure system to the west. The latter scenario would yank the storm — and its moisture — farther inland.

All told, a general 1 to 2 inches is a good bet for most of southern New England, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Beneath the system’s axis of heaviest rainfall, which some models have shifted westward, 2 to 4 inches or greater is possible.

There would also be a low risk of an isolated waterspout or brief tornado east of the system’s center.

Right along the coast, from Long Island to Cape Cod, winds could gust between 35 and 50 mph as the storm makes its closest approach.

High stakes forecast in New York City Tri-state area

Whether the system jogs west closer to the coast will have big implications in a place like New York City, which originally looked to be fringed by the heaviest rainfall. If the system has greater mobility to move inland, as the latest data hints is becoming more probable, then rainfall amounts could increase dramatically. The time frame to watch would be the second half of Friday into the overnight.

There is also an increasing likelihood that a diffuse cold front associated with low pressure to the west could become established in the Acela corridor from northeast Maryland to New York. If this occurs, the temperature boundary could help focus moisture and enhance downpour potential. That could lead to a period of very heavy downpours and potential urban flooding, especially in the Tri-State area, Friday or Friday night.

One to 3 inches appears a safe bet right now, with 2 to 4 inches — or greater — more probable if trends continue in the direction they’re heading.

Humble origins as a “homegrown” system

The system that could intensify into a named storm has humble beginnings close to 1,000 miles from its current position. It fits in line with the type of storms that typically form this time of year by less orthodox means.

Some tropical cyclones — like those that form over the Atlantic’s main development region, or MDR — are rather straightforward. They develop as a wave of low pressure exiting the African coast intensifies over the bath-warm waters of the Atlantic. But the MDR doesn’t usually begin cranking out storms until August. Until then, the ingredients that can combine and culminate into a tropical cyclone are a bit more subtle.

In the case of Invest 98L, a thunderstorm complex over Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas early on July 4 appears to have left behind a “mesoscale convective vortex” that emerged over the Gulf of Mexico late in the day. That leftover swirl presented a coil of spin that would drift over the open waters of the gulf on July 5. By Monday morning, it had moved ashore over the Florida Peninsula, its area of spin, or “vorticity,” readily apparent on Doppler radar.

Since then, thunderstorms have slowly lumbered around 98L’s axis of rotation over land, awaiting the vortex’s promenade over the ocean’s toasty nourishment.

A similar setup unfolded Sunday night, when Tropical Storm Edouard formed out of a remnant mesoscale convective vortex following thunderstorm activity in the Tennessee Valley.

An active season looms

When Tropical Storm Edouard formed on Sunday, it became the earliest fifth named storm on record. It’s an indicator of just how busy the season has been thus far at a time when many years struggle to squeak out a single storm. According to the National Hurricane Center, the average date for a season’s fifth named storm is Aug. 31.

There are a number of key mechanisms in the atmosphere that, combined with anomalously hot ocean waters and a developing La Niña, favor an active season. While July looks to slow down after the passage of this system, August could quickly become busier.

Hurricane season historically peaks in September.