Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:54 PM GMT on May 24, 2010
An extratropical low pressure system (90L) between the Bahamas and Bermuda is moving north-northwest towards North Carolina and is close to tropical storm strength. Last night's ASCAT pass saw a large area of 35 mph winds to the north and east of the center, and buoy 41048 to northeast of 90L's center was seeing sustained ENE winds of 36 mph, gusting to 43 mph this morning. Bermuda is seeing some heavy weather from this storm, with winds blowing at 35 mph on the west end of the island, and the Bermuda radar showing an area of moderate to heavy rain moving over the island. Seas are running 5 - 10 feet in the outer waters of Bermuda today, and are expected to increase to 10 - 14 feet tonight before diminishing on Tuesday.
Figure 1. Visible satellite image of 90L this morning.
Strong upper-levels winds out of the west are creating about 25 knots of wind shear over 90L, but the shear has been gradually decreasing over the past day. Visible satellite loops show that 90L does not have a well-defined surface circulation. The main thunderstorm activity is in a large curved band to the north and northeast of the center. This band is several hundred miles removed from the center, which is characteristic of subtropical storms. I expect that 90L will continue to grow more subtropical in nature today through Wednesday as the shear continues to fall. Sea surface temperatures are near 25°C today and will fall to 23 - 24°C on Tuesday. This is warm enough to support a subtropical storm, but probably not a tropical storm. On Wednesday, 90L will be nearing the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, and SSTs will warm again, to the 24 - 25°C range. This is still pretty cool for a tropical storm, and I expect 90L will never become fully tropical. To understand the difference between a tropical and subtropical storm and why we care, see my subtropical storm tutorial.
The SHIPS model predicts that shear will fall to the medium 10 - 20 knot range by Tuesday. A large amount of dry air to 90L's southwest associated with the upper-level trough of low pressure on top of the storm, as seen on water vapor satellite loops , will hamper transition of 90L to a subtropical or tropical storm. The system will move slowly towards the Southeast U.S. coast over the next two days, making its closest approach to the coast on Wednesday, when most of the models indicate the center will be 200 - 400 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. All of the major models currently predict that 90L will not make landfall, but will move slowly eastward out to sea on Thursday, when a trough of low pressure moving across the Eastern U.S. picks up the storm. There presently isn't much to be concerned with about this storm, as it appears that it will remain offshore and will become, at worst, a 40 - 50 mph subtropical storm. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is giving 90L a medium (30% chance) of developing into a depression or tropical/subtropical storm. Wunderbloggers Weather456 and StormW have more on 90L.
Western Caribbean disturbance
A small region of disturbed weather has developed in the Western Caribbean, off the east coast of Nicaragua. Moisture is expected to increase across in this area in the coming days, and by Saturday, the GFS and NOGAPS models predict that shear will drop low enough to permit the possible development of a strong tropical disturbance or tropical depression. This storm would then move northeastward over eastern Cuba early next week. The other models keep the shear high in the Caribbean all week, and do not show anything developing. Thus, the Western Caribbean bears watching later this week, but the conditions appear marginal for development.
Moderate risk of severe weather today in northern Plains
The Storm Prediction Center has placed western Nebraska and portions of South and North Dakota under their "Moderate" risk for severe weather today. They warn that "a couple of strong and possibly long-track tornadoes appear possible given the forecast scenario." Keep an eye on the activity today with our Severe Weather Page.
Major oil threat continues for the coast of Louisiana
Light winds are expected to prevail across the northern Gulf of Mexico all week, resulting in continued oiling threats to the Louisiana shoreline from the mouth of the Mississippi River westward 150 miles, according to the latest trajectory forecasts from NOAA. There is no longer a flow of oil moving southwards towards the Loop Current, and the oil that did move southwards last week was mostly entrained into a counter-clockwise rotating eddy attached to the northern boundary of the Loop Current. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery over the weekend showed that most of this oil has dispersed, and very little of this oil is now visible from space (Figure 2.) Imagery from NASA's MODIS instrument and from NOAA aircraft did not show any oil in the Loop Current headed towards the Florida Keys over the weekend, so that is good news. NOAA comments that there may be some "scattered tar balls" in the Loop Current headed towards the Florida Keys. I expect these scattered tar balls have completed the full loop of the Loop Current and are now headed east towards the Keys, and will pass the Dry Tortugas and Key West sometime Wednesday - Saturday. My guess is that the oil and its accompanying plume of toxic dispersants will be too thin and scattered to cause significant problems in the Keys.
Figure 2. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) image of the oil spill taken at 11:41am EDT Saturday May 22, 2010, by the European Envisat-1 satellite. Only scattered patches of oil are evident in the counter-clockwise rotating eddy on the northern boundary of the Loop Current. A small amount of oil appears to be in the Loop Current, and is moving southward. Image credit: Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing, University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. SAR images have a resolution of 8 - 50 meters, and can be taken through clouds and precipitation.
Future threats to the Keys
Mostly offshore winds are expected this week over the northern Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the approach of the 90L storm along the Southeast U.S. coast. It is uncertain if these winds will be strong enough to push oil southward into the Loop Current, though at least one ocean trajectory model does show this occurring. As I discussed in my post Wednesday, the Loop Current is very unstable right now, and is ready to cut off into a giant clockwise-rotating eddy, an event that occurs every 6 - 11 months. At least one ocean model (the Global HYCOM model from the HYCOM consortium) is predicting that such an eddy will form this week. In the event a Loop Current Eddy does break off, it would create a rotating ring of water 250 miles in diameter to the south of the oil spill. Oil moving southwards would tend to enter the giant eddy and circulate around it, not threatening any land areas. Roffer's Ocean Fishing Forecast Service has a nice discussion on the possibility of the Loop Current cutting off into a Loop Current Eddy. Keep in mind, though, that during the first month that a Loop Current Eddy forms, it exchanges a considerable amount of water with the Loop Current. Thus we can expect that a portion of any oil moving southwards into a Loop Current Eddy will find its way into the Loop Current and move past the Florida Keys.
Oil spill resources
My post Wednesday with answers to some of the common questions I get about the spill
My post on the Southwest Florida "Forbidden Zone" where surface oil will rarely go
My post on what oil might do to a hurricane
NOAA trajectory forecasts
Deepwater Horizon Unified Command web site
Oil Spill Academic Task Force
University of South Florida Ocean Circulation Group oil spill forecasts
ROFFS Deepwater Horizon page
Surface current forecasts from NOAA's HYCOM model
Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery from the University of Miami
I'll be back with a new post Tuesday morning.
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