Hurricane Irene Prepares to Leave the Bahamas and Head for the US
As of 2AM EDT, Hurricane Irene was located at 24.2N, 76.0W, 105 miles east-southeast of Nassau or 760 miles south of Cape Hatteras. It was moving northwest at 12 mph with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, making it a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Irene has a minimum central pressure of 950 mb. Hurricane force winds can be found up to 70 miles from Irene's center, and tropical storm force winds can be found out to 255 miles from the storm's center.
Hurricane warnings are in effect for all of the Bahamas. Hurricane and tropical storm watches will likely be posted for the Carolina coastlines later this morning. At this time, Dare County Emergency Management has issued a mandatory evacuation order for all visitors in their county. Dare County Schools will also be closed Thursday and Friday.
Figure 1 is the infrared satellite image of Irene at 135EDT. The convection is a bit unbalanced around the storm center, which is going to cause Irene to wobble like an unbalanced clothes washer (Analogy courtesy of Angela Fritz) over the next few hours. At the time this image was taken, the convection around Irene's center appears to be getting more vigorous, as cold cloudtops are starting to increase around the storm center. This is important to note because microwave satellite imagery from Wednesday evening suggested Irene was starting an eyewall replacement cycle. Figure 2 shows passive microwave imagery from a Air Force DMSP polar-orbiting satellite. The two concentric green/yellow bands in the image suggest that two eyewall features are present in Irene, and Hurricane Hunter observations confirm this. This has important consequences for Irene's intensity, because in an eyewall replacement cycle, as the inner eyewall weakens, the storm's intensity drops. However, once the inner eyewall is gone, and the outer eyewall contracts to replace it, the storm intensity will increase again.
Figure 1 IR satellite view of Irene taken at 113AM EDT, August 23, 2011
Figure 2 DMSP F18 microwave overpass of Irene at 824PM EDT, August 24, 2011. Image courtesy of the Naval Research Laboratory
Irene is forecast to move to the northwest, passing over the northwest Bahamas by Thursday evening, then curving to the northeast. Irene then makes landfall in the US near or at the Outer Banks Saturday afternoon, then traveling along the mid-Atlantic coastline of the US. Sunday, Irene may make secondary landfall anywhere from New Jersey to Long Island and the southern New England coastline. In my opinion, New York City may be significantly impacted by Irene. It is also important to note that the windfield of Irene is expected to be large, affecting areas distant from the immediate track of Irene's center. Tropical storm forces winds are expected to be found out to at least 150 miles away from Irene's center on Friday afternoon.
NHC is forecasting for Irene to become a Category 4 storm (winds faster than 130 mph) by Thursday morning. As Irene moves northward into cooler water, the intensity is expected to drop slowly to a Category 2 storm before making landfall in the Outer Banks.
Figure 3 Official track forecast of Irene at 2AM EDT.
Forecast models and today's planned flights
The different forecast models are still in fairly good agreement about Irene's track through the Bahamas and along the east coast of the US. The 00Z GFS run is in close agreement with the 12Z ECMWF run, but the 00Z ECMWF run (shown in figure 4) is continuing the ECMWF's trend of shifting the track westward with each run. NHC forecasters have been placing emphasis on the ECMWF's forecast track when making their forecasts for IRene, so it is possible that the NHC track will shift westwards at the 5AM update.
Looking at the plan of the day valid for today, it will be a busy day for airborne reconnaissance. Three flights for the Air Force hurricane hunters, two flights for the Gulfstream IV (Gonzo), and two flights for NOAA 42, a WP-3D (Kermit). They may have to give NOAA a littering permit for all of the dropsondes used to monitor Irene and her environment, but the forecast improvements they generate are worth the effort.
Figure 4 Plot of the maximum sustained winds in mph over the next week from the 00Z ECMWF forecast.
Hurricane force winds will arrive in the northwestern Bahamas today. Storm surge near the center of Irene will be 7-11 feet above tide level. The Bahamas can expect 6-12 inches of rain over the next day or so, and it looks like the Turks and Caicos islands will receive a total of 6-12 inches from Irene. Large, swells from Irene will start landing on the southeastern US coastline later today. Please don't go in the water, as these swells can cause dangerous rip currents. Dr. Masters has catalogued the worst-case storm surge surge scenarios as a function of storm intensity here.
In my opinion, people living from the Carolinas to Cape Cod should pay close attention to Irene and prepare for a wide range of impacts. I think that there is a 75% chance of Irene's secondary landfall will be somewhere between JFK airport and Cape Cod. That said, Irene's size will cause significant impacts for people living far from it's center.
Dr. Masters will have a new blog entry this morning, and Angela Fritz will be covering the afternoon. I'll be back on third shift tonight.
Thanks for reading,
Dr. Rob Carver