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Tropical Storm Elsa forms, becoming earliest fifth named storm on record

Tropical storm warnings are in effect for portions of the Lesser Antilles and Caribbean. The storm could affect Florida early next week.

Tropical Storm Elsa as of Thursday morning. (NOAA)

Tropical storm watches and warnings are up for portions of the Lesser Antilles and Caribbean ahead of Elsa, which formed Thursday morning. By early next week, the tropical storm could be a problem for parts of Florida and/or the Gulf Coast.

Developing just hours after the calendar flipped to July, Elsa became the fifth named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. On average, the Atlantic doesn’t crank out its fifth named storm until the end of August.

Elsa became the earliest fifth named storm ever observed, breaking the record set last year when Edouard formed on July 6. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season produced a record-setting 30 named storms.

According to Brian McNoldy, a tropical weather expert at the University of Miami and a Capital Weather Gang contributor, Elsa formed farther east than only one previous storm this early in the season. Normally, at this time of year, storms form in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, rather than east of the Lesser Antilles where Elsa was born.

At 11 a.m. Thursday, Elsa was located about 680 miles east-southeast of the Windward Islands in the west-central tropical Atlantic, moving west at a swift 28 mph. Winds were up to 45 mph, and the system’s air pressure continued to fall as it intensified.

Tropical storm warnings are in effect for Barbados, Martinique, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, while a watch covers Grenada and Guadeloupe.

On satellite imagery, Elsa was looking disconcertingly healthy at dawn Thursday. A roiling mass of deep convective clouds, or thunderheads, was present as Elsa’s “central dense overcast” region consolidated and developed.

Meanwhile, obvious rotation was visible. Closer to the surface, broad counterclockwise circulation was evident as inflow, or the inward spiraling of warm, moist near-surface air in contact with the ocean, fed the fledgling tempest. A more diffuse outflow, or outward evacuation of “spent” air, was visible exiting the storm and fanning out clockwise away from its center.

Elsa is set to gradually intensify in the days ahead. Heavy rain and minor storm surge appear to be the main threats for the Lesser Antilles, with wind a secondary concern. A broad 3 to 6 inches of rainfall are possible on Friday, with localized 8 inch amounts.

From there, Elsa will sweep into the Caribbean while gathering strength. It has plenty going for it — water temperatures in the central and western Caribbean are running a degree or two above average for this time of year, and wind shear, or a change of wind speed and/or direction with height, is weak. That makes it easier for Elsa to blossom without experiencing a disruptive atmospheric tug of war.

However, its swift motion may lead to some separation of its upper-level and low-level circulations, meaning part of the storm could eventually outrun the rest of it as it makes progress westward. That would be an impediment to intensification.

The combination of conflicting factors leads to a very challenging intensity forecast. For the time being, a strong tropical storm is a good bet, but if conditions manifest as is currently possible, a hurricane would not be terribly unlikely. At the moment, the National Hurricane Center is leaning toward the “conservative” intensity forecast.

Considerable uncertainty also surrounds track forecasts. Confidence is high that Elsa will continue on its current bearing into the Caribbean, but how quickly and to what extent it recurves northwestward and eventually northward are open questions.

The Hurricane Center advises that people in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas should remain abreast of evolving forecasts, with a “risk of wind and rainfall impacts” possible in any of those areas.

If Elsa maintains a more westerly course, Cuba and Gulf Coastal Florida could come into play toward the middle of next week. A more easterly track might favor Hispaniola, the east coast of Florida and parts of the Southeastern United States.

“There is a risk of storm surge, wind, and rainfall impacts in the Florida Keys and portions of the southern Florida Peninsula early next week,” the Hurricane Center wrote. “However, the forecast uncertainty remains larger than usual due to Elsa’s potential interaction with the Greater Antilles this weekend.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting above average activity this year for the sixth consecutive Atlantic hurricane season, calling for 13 to 20 named storms. Unfortunately for beleaguered residents of areas affected by last year’s historic barrage of storms, it appears there is no rest for the weary.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.