Tropical Storm Chantal: a Likely Harbinger of an Active Atlantic Hurricane Season

By Dr. Jeff Masters
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Published: 2:02 PM GMT on July 08, 2013

Tropical Storm Chantal is speeding westwards at 26 mph towards a Tuesday encounter with the Lesser Antilles Islands. Satellite loops show that Chantal has plenty of spin, with several well-developed low-level spiral bands that have gradually increased their heavy thunderstorm activity this morning. However, Chantal is fighting dry air associated with the Saharan Air Layer (SAL). The heavy thunderstorm activity near Chantal's center is rather thin, and there are virtually no heavy thunderstorms on the storm's north side, where upper-level northwesterly winds are creating light to moderate wind shear of 5 - 15 knots, and driving dry air into the storm. This dry air is readily apparent on water vapor satellite loops. Ocean temperatures are fairly warm, though, at 27.5 - 28°C. There have not been any hurricane hunter missions into Chantal yet, but an Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft deployed to St. Croix on Sunday, and is scheduled to investigate Chantal on Monday afternoon.


Figure 1. MODIS image of Chantal taken at approximately 10 am EDT Monday, July 8, 2013. At the time, Chantal had top winds of 45 mph. Image credit: NASA.


Figure 2. U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Levi Denham, a WC-130J Hercules aircraft weather reconnaissance loadmaster assigned to the 53rd Reconnaissance Squadron (the Hurricane Hunters), performs pre-engine start-up inspections in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, on Sept. 16, 2010. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel J. Martinez, U.S. Air Force. Thanks go to wunderground member Patrap for pointing out this photo.

Forecast for Chantal
The 8 am EDT Monday forecast from the SHIPS model predicts that Chantal will experience low to moderate shear through Tuesday afternoon as it heads west-northwest at 25 mph towards Hispaniola. With ocean temperatures expected to warm to 28°C during that time, Chantal has the potential to intensify to a 65 mph tropical storm before hitting Hispaniola. Working against intensification will be the fast forward speed of the storm--tropical storms moving faster than 20 mph in the deep tropics usually have trouble intensifying. In addition, the Eastern Caribbean is an area where the trade winds accelerate, helping drive sinking air that discourages tropical storm intensification. Dry air will also slow down the intensification process, and I don't see Chantal making it to hurricane strength before interacting with the mountains of Hispaniola and/or Cuba on Tuesday night and Wednesday. This interaction may be able to destroy the storm, since wind shear is also expected to rise to the high range, 20 - 30 knots, Tuesday night through Thursday. Chantal has the potential to cause big problems for Haiti, which is highly vulnerable to flash flooding due to the lack of vegetation on the deforested mountains. However, there is a lot of dry air to the west of Chantal, which may act to keep rainfall totals in Haiti down to a manageable 2 - 4". Over 300,000 people are still homeless and living in makeshift tent camps in Haiti, three years after the great 2010 earthquake.

Once Chantal crosses Hispaniola and enters the Bahamas late this week, the trough of low pressure pulling the storm to the northwest is expected to lift out. It is unclear at this point whether or not this trough will be strong enough to pull Chantal out to sea, or whether the storm might be forced back to the northwest into the U.S. East Coast by high pressure building in.


Figure 3. There have been only thirteen tropical depressions or tropical storms that have formed July 15 or earlier that have passed through the Lesser Antilles since 1851, an average of one such tropical cyclone every thirteen years. Note that two of these storms, Dennis and Emily, occurred during the notorious Hurricane Season of 2005. There were five other pre-July 16 storms that formed east of the Lesser Antilles Islands, but did not pass through the islands (Bertha of 2009, Barry of 1989, and unnamed tropical depressions in 1967, 1978, and 2001.) Image credit: NOAA's Historical Hurricane Tracks website.

Chantal: an uncommon early-season Cape Verde-type tropical storm
Formation of a tropical storm east of the Lesser Antilles Islands in early July from an African tropical wave is an uncommon occurrence. Since Atlantic hurricane records began in 1851, there have been only thirteen tropical depressions or tropical storms that have formed July 15 or earlier that have passed through the Lesser Antilles, an average of one early-season tropical cyclone every thirteen years. Note that two of these storms, Dennis and Emily, occurred during the notorious Hurricane Season of 2005. There were five other pre-July 16 storms that formed east of the Lesser Antilles Islands, but did not pass through the islands (Bertha of 2009, Barry of 1989, and tropical depressions in 1967, 1978, and 2001 that did not become named storms.)

Chantal: a likely harbinger of an active Atlantic hurricane season
Chantal's formation on July 8 is an usually early date for formation of the season's third storm, which usually occurs on August 13. A large number of early-season named storms is not necessarily a harbinger of an active season, unless one or more of these storms form in the deep tropics, south of 23.5°N. According to Phil Klotzbach and Bill Gray, leaders of Colorado State's seasonal hurricane forecasting team,

"Most years do not have named storm formations in June and July in the tropical Atlantic (south of 23.5°N); however, if tropical formations do occur, it indicates that a very active hurricane season is likely. For example, the seven years with the most named storm days in the deep tropics in June and July (since 1949) are 1966, 1969, 1995, 1996, 1998, 2005, and 2008. All seven of these seasons were very active. When storms form in the deep tropics in the early part of the hurricane season, it indicates that conditions are already very favorable for TC development. In general, the start of the hurricane season is restricted by thermodynamics (warm SSTs, unstable lapse rates), and therefore deep tropical activity early in the hurricane season implies that the thermodynamics are already quite favorable for tropical cyclone (TC) development."

Two of this season's three storms have formed in the deep tropics--Tropical Storm Barry, which formed in the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche at a latitude of 19.6°N, and now Tropical Storm Chantal, which formed at a latitude of 9.8°N. With recent runs of the GFS model predicting formation of yet another tropical storm southwest of the Cape Verde Islands early next week, it appears that the Atlantic is primed for an active hurricane season in 2013.

Jeff Masters

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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Tropical Storm Chantal: a Likely Harbinger of an Active Atlantic Hurricane Season

Tropical Storm Chantal is speeding westwards at 26 mph towards a Tuesday encounter with the Lesser Antilles Islands. Satellite loops show that Chantal has plenty of spin, with several well-developed low-level spiral bands that have gradually increased their heavy thunderstorm activity this morning. However, Chantal is fighting dry air associated with the Saharan Air Layer (SAL). The heavy thunderstorm activity near Chantal's center is rather thin, and there are virt...

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