What would a hurricane do to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:57 PM GMT on May 26, 2010

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Hurricane season is upon us next week, and the Deepwater Horizon blowout is still spewing a geyser of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. With this year's hurricane season likely to be a severe one, with much above average numbers of hurricanes and intense hurricanes, we have the unwholesome prospect of a hurricane churning through the largest accidental oil spill in history. A hurricane has never passed over a sizable oil spill before, so there are a lot of unknowns about what might happen. The closest call came in 1979, after the greatest accidental oil spill in history, the massive Ixtoc I blowout. That disaster dumped 3 million barrels (126 million gallons) of oil into the Southern Gulf of Mexico between June 1979 and March 1980. Category 1 Hurricane Henri passed just north of the main portion of the oil spill on September 16 and 17, generating 15 foot seas and southwest winds of 15 - 25 knots over the spill region on the 16th. Interestingly, the NOAA/AOML report on the spill found that the winds did not blow long enough or strongly enough to control the direction of oil flow, as evidenced by the fact that the wind direction was often 180° to the direction of plume flow. The main impact of the wind was to dilute the oil and weather it, converting it to a thick "mousse".

Oil and beaches
During the Ixtoc spill, prevailing currents circulating clockwise from the blowout carried a 60-mile by 70-mile patch of sheen containing a 300 foot by 500 foot patch of heavy crude 900 miles to the South Texas coast. On August 6, 1979, tarballs from the spill impacted a 17 mile stretch of Texas beach. Mousse patches impacted the shoreline north of Port Mansfield Channel on August 15 and again on August 18. On August 24, mousse impacted shoreline south of Aransas Pass. By August 26, most of North Padre Island was covered with moderate amounts of oil. By September 1, all of the south Texas coast had been impacted by oil. However, Hurricane Henri formed in the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche on September 17 - 18. At the same time, a strong non-tropical low pressure system formed along the Texas coast, bringing gale-force winds and rainfall amounts in excess of ten inches to the coast. The combination of swells from Hurricane Henri and wind-driven waves from the non-tropical low pressure system scoured the oiled beaches of over 90% of their oil (Gundlach et al., 1981). The oil washed over the barrier islands into the estuaries behind them, and much of it sank to the bottom of the ocean. According to NOAA, impacts to the estuaries were minor. However, Payne and McNabb (1984) noted that selected regions of the coast, most of the beached oil was heavily resistant to transport during storms. Oil/sediment mats were ultimately covered by clean sand, but the oil/sediment mats were re-exposed and washed into the lagoon behind the barrier islands one year later when Category 3 Hurricane Allen battered the coast. No transport of the oil/sediment mats from the lagoon bottom was observed in the 3-year period following Hurricane Allen.

So, the Ixtoc blowout experience shows us that if a sandy beach is already fouled by oil, a hurricane can help clean up the mess. However, the situation is different along shores with marshlands, where the many shoreline plants offer crevices and tangled roots for the oil to accumulate in. A hurricane will help scour some of the oil out of marshlands, but the majority of it will probably remain stuck. This is also true of rocky beaches. Rocky shores fouled by the great Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 have been pounded by many hurricane-strength storms over the years, but these storms were not able to clean the beaches of oil like Hurricane Henri did for Texas' beaches in 1979.

Transport of oil by hurricanes
Shores that are already fouled by oil will probably benefit from a hurricane, but the oil cleaned off of those shores then becomes someone else's problem. The strong winds and powerful ocean currents that a hurricane's winds drive will bring oil to large stretches of coast that otherwise would not have gotten oil. This is my chief concern regarding a hurricane moving through the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Consider the case of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. The ill-fated tanker split open in Prince William Sound on March 24, and oil spill response crews were initially able to contain the spill behind booms and make good progress removing it. However, two days later, a powerful Gulf of Alaska storm with 70 mph winds roared through, overwhelming the containment booms and distributing the oil along a 90-mile stretch of coast. The oil went on to foul over 400 miles of Alaska coast, a far larger disaster than would have occurred than if the storm had not passed by. Similarly, a hurricane moving through the Gulf of Mexico spill will very likely make the disaster much worse, spreading out the oil over a larger region, and bringing the oil to shores that otherwise might not have seen oil. It is true that the oil will be diluted some by being spread out over a larger area, so some shores will not see a substantial oiling. But overall, a hurricane passing through the oil spill is likely to result in much higher damage to the coast.

I expect that during the peak portion of hurricane season (August - October), the clockwise-rotating eddy that is attempting to cut off from the Loop Current this week will be fully separated from the Loop Current. The separation of this eddy will substantially reduce the possibility that significant amounts of oil will reach the Florida Keys and Southeast U.S. coast, since the Loop Current will be much farther south, flowing more due east towards the Keys from the Yucatan Channel. Oil moving southwards from the spill location due to a hurricane's winds will tend to get trapped in the 250-mile wide eddy, potentially covering most of the surface of the eddy with oil. Thus we might have a 250-mile wide spinning oil slick in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico for days or weeks after a hurricane. This could potentially have a significant warming effect on the Gulf waters, since the oil is dark and will absorb sunlight, and the oil will prevent evaporation from cooling the waters underneath it. Since Loop Current eddies contain a large amount of very warm water that extend to great depth, they often act as high-octane fuel for hurricanes that pass over. The rapid intensification of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were both aided by the passage of those storms over Loop Current eddies. Thus the warming of the Loop Current Eddy by oil pulled into it by a passing hurricane or tropical storm could lead to explosive intensification of the next hurricane that passes over the eddy.

The Loop Current Eddy will move slowly westwards toward Texas at about 4 miles per day after it fully cuts off. When it reaches the shallow waters near the Texas coast in early 2011, the eddy will turn northwards and gradually dissipate, By then, I expect that the vast majority of the oil in the eddy will have dispersed, sunk, or evaporated.

Storm surge and oil
One of the more unnerving prospects to consider if a hurricane hits the oil spill is what the hurricane's storm surge might do with the oil/dispersant mixture. The foul mix would ride inland on top of the surge, potentially fouling residential areas and hundreds of square miles of sensitive ecosystems with the toxic stew. The impacts of the oil and dispersant on vegetation may be too low to cause significant damage, since the hurricane would dilute the mixture with a large amount of sea water, and wash much of the toxic brew off the vegetation with heavy rain. We do have some limited experience with oil spills during Hurricane Katrina's storm surge to shed light on the subject. Katrina's storm surge caused over 8 million gallons of oil to spill into the storm surge waters. The largest spill occurred when the storm surge hit the Murphy Oil refinery in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. According to Santella et al. (2010), The refinery was inundated with 12 feet of water, and a partially filled 250,000-barrel above ground storage tank was dislodged and ruptured, releasing 25,100 barrels (1.05 million gallons) of mixed crude oil. Dikes surrounding the oil tanks at the refinery were flooded and breached and oil from the spill covered a residential area of approximately one square mile affecting approximately 1,800 homes. Front-end loaders were needed to remove the oily sediments from the area. A class action lawsuit resulted from the spill, ending in a $330 million settlement with a buy-out of properties closest to the spill and graded compensation in a larger zone. Katrina also caused a 139,000-gallon crude oil leak from a 20-inch pipeline at Shell Nairn Pipeline Company in Port Sulphur, Louisiana. Approximately 10,500 gallons of the spill reached the shoreline and coastal marshes, and only 10,700 gallons were recovered. This release resulted in a $5.5 million class action settlement to nearby property owners (http://www.nairnclaims.com). I haven't been able to find any information on how the marshlands fared after getting oiled by this spill.

Katrina's storm surge also destroyed an oil tank at Chevron's Empire facility, releasing oil into a retention pond in a region surrounded by marshland. Three and half weeks later, Hurricane Rita's storm surge hit the oily mess in the retention pond, washing 4,000 - 8,000 gallons of oil into nearby marshlands, which were heavily or moderately oiled. According to the EPA and Merten et al. (2008), the oiled marshlands were set on fire six weeks after the spill, resulting in 80-90% removal of the oil and contaminated vegetation. The marshland recovered fairly quickly, as seen in aerial photos taken five months after the burn (Figure 1)--though oil still remained in the roots, affecting burrowing crabs and the wildlife that feed on them. So, oiled marshes can recover somewhat from a storm-surge driven oiling, but it is uncertain if burning could be successfully used to restore a 100+ square mile region of marshland oiled by the storm surge from a major hurricane. Another big unknown is how toxic BP's dispersants might be to the vegetation.


Figure 1. Upper left: oiled marshlands as seen on October 10, 2005, near Chevron's Empire facility, after the storm surges of Katrina and Rita. Right: The marshlands on March 16, 2006, five months after the controlled burn. The marshlands had largely recovered. Bottom: the controlled burn in progress (October 12, 2005.) Image credit: Merten, A.A., Henry, C., and J. Michel, 2008, Decision-making process to use in-situ burning to restore an oiled intermediate marsh following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 2008 International Oil Spill Conference.

Wind and oil
The winds from a hurricane hurl ocean sea spray miles inland, often causing major defoliation and tree damage far beyond where the storm surge penetrates. For example, Category 2 Hurricane Bob of 1991 blew sea spray inland 4 miles (7 km) inland over Cape Cod. The salt deposited defoliated nearly all the deciduous trees along the coast. Kerr, 2000 document the case of Category 2 Typhoon Gay of November 23, 1992, which hit the 15-km wide island of Guam with 95 - 100 mph winds. Interaction with another typhoon disrupted Gay's thunderstorm activity, resulting in a nearly rainless typhoon for Guam. As a result, heavy amounts of salt coated the entire island, resulting in nearly complete defoliation. The salt didn't actually kill many plants, and the island re-greened within a year. The Category 3 New England Hurricane of 1938 was able to cause salt damage to trees as far as 45 miles inland, due to wind-blown sea spray. Thus we can anticipate that a hurricane passing over the oil spill will be able to hurl oil and toxic dispersants many miles inland during landfall. In regions where little rain falls, the concentrations of the oil and dispersants may be a problem. Again, we have no experience with this sort of situation, so the potential risks are unknown.

Rain and oil
Hurricanes evaporate huge amounts of water from the ocean and convert it to rain. In general, we do not need to worry about oil dissolving into the rain, since the oil and water don't mix. Furthermore, about 50-70% of the oil that is going to evaporate from the spill does so in the first 12 hours that the oil reaches the surface, so the volatile oil compounds that could potentially get dissolved into rain water won't be around. Hurricanes are known to carry sea salt and microscopic marine plankton hundreds of miles inland, since the strong updrafts of the storm can put these substances high in the troposphere where they can be carried far inland as the hurricane makes landfall. The Eastern Pacific's Hurricane Nora of 1997, whose remnants passed over Southern California, brought traces of sea salt and marine microorganisms to clouds over the central U.S. similarly, we can expect any landfalling hurricanes that pass over the oil spill to pick up traces of Gulf of Mexico crude and transport it hundreds of miles inland. However, I doubt that these traces would be detectable in rainwater except by laboratory analysis, and would not cause any harm to plants or animals.

Lightning and oil
Could a lightning strike from a hurricane ignite oil from the spill, and the hurricane's winds hurl the flaming oil inland, creating a fiery maelstrom of water, wind, and flame? This would make a great scene in a typical bad Hollywood disaster movie, but it's not going to happen with the universe's current laws of physics. Lightning could set an oil slick on fire, in regions where the oil is most dense and very fresh. About 50-70% of the evaporation of oil's most flammable volatile compounds occurs in the first 12 hours after release, so fresh oil is the most likely to ignite. However, the winds of a hurricane are so fierce that any surface oil slick of flaming oil would quickly be disrupted and doused by wave action and sea spray. Heavy rain would further dampen any lightning-caused oil slick fires.

Bringing oil at depth to the surface
Hurricanes act like huge blenders that plow through the ocean, thoroughly mixing surface waters to depths as great as 200 meters (650 feet), and pulling waters from depth to the surface. Thus if sub-surface plumes of oil are located within 200 meters of the surface, a hurricane could potentially bring them to the surface. However, the huge sub-surface plumes of oil found by the research vessel Pelican were at depths of 2300 - 4200 feet, and a hurricane will not affect the ocean circulation at those depths.

Comparisons of the Deepwater Horizon blowout with Exxon Valdez
One footnote to consider when comparing the Deepwater Horizon blowout to the disastrous March 24, 1989 Exxon Valdez spill: the amount of oil spilled in that disaster is usually quoted as 11 million gallons (260,000 barrels.) However, this is the number given by Exxon Mobil, and independent assessments by the State of Alaska came up with a much higher figure--24 to 36 million gallons, with state investigators stressing that the lower number was very unlikely. I'd be inclined to believe Exxon grossly understated the actual severity of the spill, much like BP is attempting to do with the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Steven Wereley, an associate professor at Purdue University, used a computer analysis (particle image velocimetry) to arrive at a rate of 95,000 barrels (4 million gallons) per day since the April 20 blowout, nearly 20 times greater than the 5,000 barrel a day estimate BP and government scientists have been citing. If he is correct, and the State of Alaska's figures on the Exxon Valdez disaster are correct, the Deepwater Horizon blowout so far has spilled five times the oil Exxon Valdez did.

References
Gundlach, E.R., Finkelstein, K.J., and J.L. Sadd, "Impact and Persistence of Ixtoc I Oil on the South Texas Coast", Proceedings: 1981 Oil Spill Conference (Prevention, Behavior, Control, Cleanup) March 2-5, 1981, Atlanta, GA. p 477-485.

Kerr, A.M., 2000, "Defoliation of an island (Guam, Mariana
Archipelago, Western Pacific Ocean) following a saltspray-laden
dry typhoon," Journal of Tropical Ecology 16:895901.

Merten, A.A., Henry, C., and J. Michel, 2008, Decision-making process to use in-situ burning to restore an oiled intermediate marsh following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 2008 International Oil Spill Conference.

Payne, J.R. and D. McNabb, Jr., "Weathering of Petroleum in the Marine Environment", Marine Technology Society Journal 18, 3, Third Quarter 1984.

Santella, N., Steinberg, L.J., and H. Sengul, 2010,Petroleum and Hazardous Material Releases from Industrial Facilities Associated with Hurricane Katrina, Risk Analyis, Volume 30, Issue 4, Pages 635-649, Published Online: 16 Mar 2010

90L
I've been focused more on the oil spill, and will have just a limited discussion of (90L) off the South Carolina coast. The storm has changed little over the past 24 hours, and doesn't have time to develop into a subtropical storm, before an approaching trough of low pressure pulls the system out to sea Thursday and Friday. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) is giving 90L a less than 10% chance of developing into a depression or tropical/subtropical storm, and anticipates not writing any more special advisories on 90L. There presently isn't much to be concerned with about this storm, though Bermuda may get more heavy rain and high seas from the storm late this week as it moves out to sea. Wunderbloggers Weather456 and StormW have more on 90L.

Central American disturbance
An area of disturbed weather has developed just off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The disturbance will bring heavy rains to Central America during the remainder of the week, potentially bringing serious flooding rains to portions of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. There is the potential for disturbed weather accompanying the disturbance to push into the Western Caribbean early next week and pose a threat to develop into a tropical depression. While there is high wind shear over the northern Caribbean, shear should be low enough to allow development should the disturbance stay in the southern reaches of the Caribbean. Any storm that develops in the Caribbean in the coming week would get steered to the northeast and will not pose a threat to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jeff Masters

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Ok ok before we have a widespread panic here

First off, 90E is days away from being any sort of concern in the Caribbean if it even gets there

Second, just because a few models say 90L "could" turn back towards Florida doesn't mean it will

Third, even if it does turn back to Florida there is no guarantee it wouldn't be absorb into a front anyway.
Member Since: March 10, 2010 Posts: 1 Comments: 7874
689. skep
Quoting Patrap:


Thats the plumes from the 3 leaks in the top of the BOP..they been there since day 1

Ah ok, thanks! Hadn't seen this view before..
Member Since: July 11, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 5
It will be known as the 90L post-o-doom I guess,..

666. Patrap 3:50 PM CDT on May 26, 2010

90L Floater - RGB Color Infrared Loop
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Quoting biff4ugo:
672,
they were showing valves, now this. It isn't the riser I was watching this morning. It seems to be lighter in color, and I think the mud is supposed to be greyish. So light brown is good, I think.
Is this blow out new or old?
That view is leaks at the bent pipes at the top of the BOP. They have shown it before a few days ago and it looked similar. There were multiple leaks. I would like to see an earlier video to compare though
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Quoting skep:
Hi, is this a new situation or were there always multiple "fountains"?



Thats the plumes from the 3 leaks in the top of the BOP..they been there since day 1
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
So from what I am reading - 90L has turned and is now heading for Central Fl and 90E is now heading for Central Fl.

They're going to collide and create one massive destructive super storm!

I have to LOL!
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if it heads west it will become ALEX..

the thing is very organized for once.. and there is convection trying to sip into the center.. plus there isn't too much shear.. tonight it can really develop..

the question is whether or not its going to be absorbed and turned to sea, or if it indeed going to turn towards florida were the gulf stream is located..
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Quoting Patrap:
90L seems to have gone null in motion last 3 hours.



Yep, too much dry air!
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Quoting MiamiHurricanes09:
You were post 666, lmao.


I took the plunge...I aint a-skeered

Seen hell and high water.

Now Oil.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
672,
they were showing valves, now this. It isn't the riser I was watching this morning. It seems to be lighter in color, and I think the mud is supposed to be greyish. So light brown is good, I think.
Is this blow out new or old?
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90L
Floater - Rainbow Color Infrared Loop
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Quoting Patrap:
Whose gonna roll post 666 ?

Not me..no siree'
You were post 666, lmao.
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The convergence of breezes is causing storms in parts of eastern Cuba.
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674. skep
Hi, is this a new situation or were there always multiple "fountains"?

Member Since: July 11, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 5
Quoting Jeff9641:


Good question. This could be a surprise system after all. I just don't how this next ULL will affect what's leftover of this system if it does begin to move bact to Florida. Very interesting to see the models turn it back.

I just took a look at CSU'S Model page and the 6:00 runs are up Link
and here are the late model runs: Link
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See an incredible amount of brown mud looking stuff flying upwards .. I hope thats not bad.
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Quoting sarahjola:
they are doing it. i'm so excited. i pray this works. i don't know what is actually taking place but i see a machine down there and i don't see oil. can someone tell me what is happening, and if this is looking like it is working. just got back home
Right now they are showing the leaks at the top of the failed BOP, and it looks like there may be some mud in the stuff coming out... but I really do not know how to interpret what they are showing us.
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Pat, you rolled '666'

Afternoon everyone.
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90L seems to have gone null in motion last 3 hours.

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Oh. Thanks. That must be the 2pm update.
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90L Floater - RGB Color Infrared Loop
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Quoting stormpetrol:

I see the pressure in Belize is 1009mb and falling, hopefully I'll have a nice landing there at around 1pm your time tomorrow :-)
We used to have a very short runway so you had to hold on real tight to land but it has now been expanded . Our pressure has been very low the last week resulting in a lot of rain .
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Will 90L turn towards Florida?
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Quoting rmbjoe1954:


But which models show this low heading back to Florida? I haven't seen any...



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Whose gonna roll post 666 ?

Not me..no siree'
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
wait 90L is turning towards florida now?

WHAT?
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Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Quoting belizeit:
I see 90E is now starting to develop its most eastern center of circulation so if it decides which one to use i think dmax will really get this thing going tonight

I see the pressure in Belize is 1009mb and falling, hopefully I'll have a nice landing there at around 1pm your time tomorrow :-)
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they are doing it. i'm so excited. i pray this works. i don't know what is actually taking place but i see a machine down there and i don't see oil. can someone tell me what is happening, and if this is looking like it is working. just got back home
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Quoting Jeff9641:


I would watch for convection to start building if it heads over warmer water.

Duh...only because of the back door cold front. There is another lifting agent there which is why all the convection is to the west of center. You all are killin me. Look at the obvious features in the sypoctic pattern please.
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Quoting stormpetrol:

Don't know if I'm ready but I'm prepared, I'll be leaving for Belize tomorrow morning but I'll be back on June 3, the family and I needs a lil vacation, catch up with ya when I get back, got some last minute things to do!
Don't worry about coming to Belize as the north does not flood easily and if we had a weak tropical storm it would probly not be enough rain to get u flooded out as water levels are still low as rain just started
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654. DEKRE
Quoting DocBen:
A comment made about the sub-surface plumes is that they are depleting the oxygen in the water column. Might we be able to inject air 'down below' into these plumes? Also, perhaps inject air with the dispersement agents? With the high pressure and cold temperatures at depth solubility of oxygen should be fairly high.


The quantities of air needed to make a difference would be enormous. Getting the air down would mean compressing it to more than 160 atm. Compressing a liquid consumes hardly any energy, compressing a gas consumes incredible amounts of energy, about 1.5 MJ/kg compared to 16 kJ/kg for water. To have an effect, I would guess that you would need 50 to 100 kg of air per gallon of crude in the water.
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90L Multiplatform Satellite Surface Wind Analysis 1800 UTC





Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Quoting Jeff9641:


Big difference from yesterday. I wonder why? I guess the models over estimated the trough to it's north.

So if the trough lifts out and 90L takes a path towards FL, what would that mean for 90E in terms of its future track??
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90L Storm Relative 1km Geostationary Visible Imagery

2002 UTC

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Quoting reedzone:
Th Subtropical Low may turn towards Florida, but phase diagrams show the system becoming cold core do to increasing shear and too much dry air. Dry air is the whole reason why this isn't Alex.


But which models show this low heading back to Florida? I haven't seen any...
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I see 90E is now starting to develop its most eastern center of circulation so if it decides which one to use i think dmax will really get this thing going tonight
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90L

Dynamic Models (More sophisticated models)



Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129920
Th Subtropical Low may turn towards Florida, but phase diagrams show the system becoming cold core do to increasing shear and too much dry air. Dry air is the whole reason why this isn't Alex.
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Quoting Jeff9641:



Half of these models changed at 2 pm. This map is from this morning.


That was issued an hour and a half ago
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Quoting wunderkidcayman:
Hey stormpetrol I think you are right I say possibly no E-Pac storm but the way it going we might have TD-1 or TS ALEX in the W Caribbean. So are you ready for this if it comes and for the rest of the season?

Don't know if I'm ready but I'm prepared, I'll be leaving for Belize tomorrow morning but I'll be back on June 3, the family and I needs a lil vacation, catch up with ya when I get back, got some last minute things to do!
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.
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Quoting Drakoen:
Soon this nontropical low (90L)will be absorbed.


Death by back door cold front.

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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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