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Atlantic runs out of storm names as Alpha forms near Portugal, while a likely hurricane brews in the Gulf

With formation of Alpha, forecasters are resorting to Greek letters to track storms.

A tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico could become a hurricane by the weekend. (RAMMB/CIRA)

2020 has officially exhausted all conventional hurricane names and tapped into the Greek alphabet. Tropical Storm Wilfred formed in the east tropical Atlantic late Friday morning, followed by Subtropical Storm Alpha — the first Greek-named storm in 15 years — off the Iberian Peninsula in Europe early in the afternoon. The system was named just before landfall, surprising meteorologists, with tropical storm conditions likely in a narrow area of Portugal and Spain.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, too. Just days after Hurricane Sally made landfall as a damaging Category 2 in Alabama and less than a month following Laura’s Category 4 destruction in Louisiana, yet another Gulf of Mexico system is showing signs of development and potential effects in the United States.

Tropical Depression 22, which is likely to earn the name “Beta” by Friday night, is expected to meander in the western gulf through early next week. Forecast to become a hurricane by the National Hurricane Center, it brings the chance of damaging winds, very heavy rainfall and storm surge flooding to coastal Texas.

Wilfred developed southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands and is poised to chug along in the days ahead toward the west-northwest across the open ocean.

Wilfred, Alpha and the imminent formation of Beta come as a period of enhanced hurricane activity in the Atlantic refuses to relent, with major Hurricane Teddy churning toward Bermuda. Hurricane Paulette made landfall Monday in Bermuda as a high-end Category 1. Teddy could ultimately make a run toward the Canadian Maritimes, or possibly even Downeast Maine.

Running out of hurricane names, we’ll soon switch to the Greek alphabet. That could present a problem.

Since the 2020 hurricane season has officially used up all conventional names from the Atlantic hurricane season naming list, all subsequent storms that form will be named after Greek letters. Alpha has already been named, with Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon up next. The only other time this occurred was in 2005, which still holds the record for the greatest amount of named storms, having made it all the way to Tropical Storm Zeta.

In 2005, Alpha didn’t form until Oct. 22 — putting 2020 a month ahead of even the previous busiest year on record.

Storms in 2020 have developed at a record pace. And with the typical seasonal peak to the Atlantic hurricane season having just passed, we still have a long way to go — about 10 weeks — before activity finally begins to simmer down.

Alpha forms at last minute, poised to strike Europe

Alpha formed right before the bell, a tiny cyclone barely 50 miles wide set to move ashore in Portugal on Friday afternoon. Bearing a mix of tropical and nontropical characteristics, Alpha was designated a subtropical storm. On satellite, it resembles a puny tropical system anchored at the core of a broader nontropical low pressure swirl.

Maximum winds at the core of the low were about 50 mph, but only near the center of the very small system. The Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere issued an orange warning for gusts up to 60 mph for Coimbra and Leiria municipalities.

Alpha will drop an inch or two of rainfall, but its small size and forward pace should preclude anything worse than isolated flood issues.

Gulf of Mexico system likely to become storm Beta

Tropical Depression 22 formed on Thursday in the western Gulf of Mexico and had winds of 35 mph to start the day on Friday. Tropical depressions are the precursors to tropical storms and signify winds building around an organizing area of low pressure.

A satellite-mounted instrument called a scatterometer, which emits pulses of radiation that deduce wind speeds based on the behavior of ocean waves below, discerned a concentrated area of low pressure well east of Tamiahua, Mexico, or about 250 miles south-southeast of Brownsville, Tex. Winds were largely between 20 and 30 mph on the system’s western flank, but a few gusts to 35 mph were ongoing just east of the center.

On satellite imagery, the system showed evidence of very strong, tall thunderstorms and some low-level counterclockwise inflow. That means air is spiraling into the developing system.

The National Hurricane Center dispatched an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft into the storm to investigate, but the plane was struck by lightning, which knocked out key radar systems. The aircraft safely turned around and was en route back to Biloxi, Miss., in late morning A second mission was slated for Friday evening.

Looking ahead, the system will probably very slowly intensify as it treks north in the coming days, becoming a strong tropical storm by the weekend and perhaps a low-end hurricane by Sunday. It will gradually make a left turn toward land, its northerly progress halted by a force field of high pressure. Right now, confidence in where the storm will come ashore is low.

As the storm nears the Texas coast Monday, the arrival of cooler, drier air from the north could begin to weaken it.

As of now, gusty to strong winds near the coast are possible, along with locally heavy rainfall and perhaps some storm surge. There is a growing chance that the incipient Beta could stall, allowing the system to unload large amounts of rainfall. Through early next week, the National Weather Service projects 5 to 10 inches of rain along the Texas coast, including Houston, which is particularly vulnerable to flooding.

Uncertainty is higher than average with this system due to the weak steering currents involved — similar to the environment that Hurricane Sally encountered as it wobbled toward the coast of Alabama earlier this week.

Hurricane Teddy

Hurricane Teddy was a 130-mph Category 4 hurricane on Friday morning and was a little more than 900 miles southeast of Bermuda. It was drifting northwest at 12 mph.

Teddy could come very close to Bermuda late Sunday into Monday. By then, it probably won’t be a major hurricane, but it could inflict strong winds on the island nation still cleaning up from Paulette. There are signs that Teddy could try to sidestep the island to the east, allowing much of the heavy rainfall and worst of the Category 2 winds to skirt east of Bermuda.

Down the road, Teddy will continue chugging along northward but will probably make a bit of a left turn, as an upper-level, low-pressure system and a dip in the jet stream to the west try to capture it.

That could bend Teddy’s track toward the Canadian Maritimes or even Downeast Maine toward midweek, with meteorologists in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland carefully monitoring its progress. By then, Teddy will have transitioned into an “extratropical” system, losing its tropical characteristics, but it could still be at hurricane strength as its wind field expands.

Teddy marks the second major hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

Tropical Storm Wilfred

A disturbance about a third of the way between Africa and the Leeward Islands was slowly becoming better organized and gaining strength on Friday. The National Hurricane Center designated the system Tropical Storm “Wilfred” about 11 a.m. Friday, with maximum sustained winds over 40 mph.

Most likely, Wilfred will track to the west and northwest over the coming days before curving more northward over the open Atlantic, where it is forecast to lose strength over colder waters.

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