A significant hurricane is predicted to develop in the Gulf of Mexico and impact portions of the U.S. Gulf Coast this weekend into early next week, bringing the risk of substantial coastal and inland flooding and destructive winds.

Although there is uncertainty as to exactly where the hurricane would track, the National Hurricane Center is stressing that residents along the northern Gulf Coast closely monitor forecasts from the Florida Panhandle to the upper Texas coast.

At the moment, many computer models suggest the storm could come ashore late Sunday or early Monday in Louisiana, which was ravaged by Hurricanes Laura, Delta and Zeta last year.

On Thursday evening, the National Hurricane Center had found the tropical depression over the west-central Caribbean had organized into a storm, earning the name Ida. The big concern is what happens over the weekend when Ida enters the Gulf of Mexico, a meteorological powder keg. Rapid strengthening is predicted over its very warm waters.

“This system is forecast to approach the northern Gulf Coast at or near major hurricane intensity on Sunday,” the National Hurricane Center wrote.

Tropical Storm Ida currently

For days, meteorologists have been carefully tracking a cluster of thunderstorms south of Jamaica that has become increasingly organized. The roiling mass of convection, or shower and thunderstorm activity, has recently acquired more spin, an indication that a center of low pressure is developing.

At 5:20 p.m. Thursday, the Hurricane Center declared a tropical storm had formed about 100 miles west-southwest of Negril, Jamaica, with peak winds of 40 mph.

“The overall satellite presentation of the tropical cyclone has continued to gradually improve today,” the Hurricane Center wrote. “[T]he circulation has continued to become better defined ... In addition, the convective activity has become a little better organized in a band around the northeastern and eastern portions of the circulation.”

The system is moving toward the northwest at 14 mph, prompting tropical storm warnings for the Cayman Islands and coastal areas in western Cuba, where the center is forecast to cross on Friday before entering the Gulf of Mexico.

The Hurricane Center projects up to 6 to 10 inches of rain from the depression over Jamaica, and 8 to 12 inches in the Cayman Islands and western Cuba.

The forecast

There is a large degree of uncertainty as to exactly where the system will track because it is just beginning to form, but most models project landfall over Louisiana on Sunday night or Monday morning.

If the system’s center forms in the northern envelope of its cluster of storminess, it will probably track on the east side of forecasts, closer to New Orleans or even the Mississippi or Alabama coast, while a more southerly system would make landfall farther west, closer to the Louisiana-Texas border.

How fast the storm organizes also will play a role in its path. A stronger, taller storm would feel high-altitude winds from the south sooner and be steered more to the north, on the eastern side of track forecasts; a shallower, weaker storm would follow a course more to the west, steered by lower-level winds.

Irrespective of its exact track, forecasts are very concerned about the storm’s potential to strengthen.

As the storm moves through the Gulf of Mexico, all reliable computer models predict its peak winds will rapidly intensify, leaping at least 35 mph in 24 hours. The Gulf of Mexico as a whole is running warmer than usual, with water temperatures in the upper 80s. Because some of the warmest water is found right along the coast, the storm could strengthen right up until the point of landfall.

Other environmental factors also support strengthening, including clockwise flow at high altitudes, which can help with hurricane outflow, or the removal of storm “exhaust,” and allow for more efficient intensification.

Wind shear, or a disruptive change of wind speed and/or direction with height, is largely weak. That shouldn’t play much of a role in the forecast for a significant storm.

The only real wild card at this point is what may happen if the nascent storm system’s central vortex becomes perturbed by the terrain of Cuba during its formative stages. Then it would become a matter of how quickly that core could reorganize and how long it would take for a potent hurricane to build itself up around it.

The Hurricane Center is encouraging residents near the storm’s path to review their preparedness plans.

Near where it comes ashore, the storm has the potential to generate a “life-threatening” surge, or storm-driven rise in ocean water above normally dry land at the coast, and “damaging hurricane-force winds,” according to the Hurricane Center.

Impacts from water and wind will invariably expand well beyond where the storm makes landfall.The National Weather Service is projecting a broad area along the Gulf Coast where there is the potential for at least 5 to 10 inches of rain.

Meanwhile, two other systems are rolling through the Atlantic. One is located about 600 miles east of Bermuda and has a 70 percent chance of development; it should remain over the open ocean. Another, located over the eastern tropical Atlantic, has a roughly 50-50 chance to organize as it heads west, but environmental conditions are forecast to become less favorable for its development early next week.