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 , 3:14 PM GMT on August 26, 2011
Satellite data and measurements from the Hurricane Hunters show that Irene is weakening. A 9:21 am EDT center fix by an Air Force Reserve aircraft found that Irene's eyewall had collapsed, and the central pressure had risen to 946 mb from a low of 942 mb this morning. The highest winds measured at their flight level of 10,000 feet were 125 mph, which would normally support classifying Irene as a Category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds. However, these winds were not mixing down to the surface in the way we typically see with hurricanes, and the strongest surface winds seen by the aircraft with their SFMR instrument were just 90 mph in the storm's northeast eyewall. Assuming the aircraft missed sampling the strongest winds of the hurricane, it's a good guess that Irene is a mid-strength Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds. Satellite imagery shows a distinctly lopsided appearance to Irene's cloud pattern, with not much heavy thunderstorm activity on the southwest side. This is due to moderate wind shear of 10 - 20 knots due to upper-level winds out of the southwest. This shear is disrupting Irene's circulation and has cut off upper-level outflow along the south side of the hurricane. No eye is visible in satellite loops, but the storm's size is certainly impressive. Long range radar out of Wlimington, North Carolina, shows that the outermost spiral bands from Irene are now beginning to come ashore along the South Carolina/North Carolina border. Winds at buoy 41004 100 miles offshore from Charleston, SC increased to 36 mph as of 10 am, with significant wave heights of 18 feet.
Figure 1. Distribution of Irene's wind field at 9:30 am EDT Friday August 26, 2011, as observed by the Hurricane Hunters and buoys. The right front quadrant of the hurricane had about 90% of the storm's hurricane-force winds (yellow and warmer colors, bounded by the heavy black line between the "50" and "60" knot thin black lines.) Tropical storm-force winds (heavy black like bounding the light blue area) extended out 290 miles from the center of Irene. Image credit: NOAA/AOML/HRD.
Forecast and storm surge potential for Irene
With its eyewall collapsed and just 24 more hours over water before landfall, it is unlikely Irene will have time to build a new eyewall and intensify. The storm is too large to weaken quickly, and the best forecast is that Irene will be a Category 2 hurricane at landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, and a rapidly weakening Category 1 hurricane at its second landfall in New England on Sunday. However, since Irene is such a huge storm--tropical storm force winds extend out up to 290 miles from the center--it has set a massive amount of the ocean's surface in motion, which will cause a much larger storm surge than the winds would suggest. At 9:30am EDT this morning, a wind analysis from NOAA/HRD (Figure 1) indicated that the potential storm surge damage from Irene rated a 5.1 on a scale of 0 to 6. This is equivalent to the storm surge a typical Category 4 hurricane would have. While this damage potential should gradually decline as Irene moves northwards and weakens, we can still expect a storm surge one full Saffir-Simpson Category higher than Irene's winds. Since tides are at their highest levels of the month this weekend due to the new moon, storm surge flooding will be at a maximum during the high tidal cycles that will occur at 8 pm Saturday night and 8 am Sunday morning. Wherever Irene happens to be at those times the storm surge damage potential will be maximized. A surge rivaling that experienced during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 is likely in northern NC, southern Maryland, and up Chesapeake Bay on Saturday night. Coastal New England from New York City to Massachusetts may also see storm surges characteristic of a Category 1 hurricane during Sunday morning's high tide, even if Irene has weakened to a tropical storm. I continue to give a 20% chance that a storm surge high enough to over-top the Manhattan flood walls and swamp the New York City subway system will occur on Sunday.
I don't think Irene is going to do a lot of wind damage to the mid-Atlantic states, since the eye of the storm will be just offshore, and the I-95 corridor from Virginia to New Jersey will be on the weak (left) side of the hurricane. The current wind distribution of Irene (Figure 1) shows almost all of the hurricane's winds are on the right side of the storm, and by the time the storm reaches Virginia, there will be likely be no hurricane-force winds on the left side of Irene. Sustained winds should stay below 74 mph (hurricane force), and wind damage will be similar to that wrought be some of the strongest Nor'easters of the past 20 years, from Virginia northwards to New York City. Since Irene will be steadily weakening as it approaches its second landfall on Long Island, I give a 50% chance that no mainland U.S. surface station in New England will record sustained hurricane-force winds. I do think it likely that one or more of the offshore islands--Block Island, Nantucket, and Marthas Vinyard--will get Category 1 hurricane winds. Though the wind damage to buildings will be similar to what the Northeast has seen during some of the more severe nor'easters of the past 20 years, tree damage will be much worse. The trees are in full leaf during hurricane season, and catch the wind much more readily than during the winter. Tree damage will very heavy, and we can expect trees in regions with saturated soils will fall over in high winds onto power lines. Irene is likely to cause one of the top-five most widespread power outages in American history from a storm. The record power outage from a Northeast storm was probably the ten million people that lost power during the great Blizzard of 1993. I don't think Irene's power outages will be quite that extensive, but several million people will likely lose power.
Irene likely to bring destructive fresh water flooding
In addition to storm surge, flash flooding and river flooding from Irene's torrential rains are the main threats. The hurricane is expected to bring rains in excess of 8" to a 100-mile-wide swath from Eastern North Carolina northwards along the coast, through New York City. The danger of fresh water flooding is greatest in northern New Jersey, Southeast Pennsylvania, and Southeast New York, where the soils are saturated from heavy August rains that were among the heaviest on record. New Jersey has had its 6th wettest August on record, with most of that rain falling in the past two weeks. Expect major river flooding throughout New Jersey the Delmarva Peninsula, and regions near New York City, as Irene's rains run off the saturated soils directly into the rivers. In general, the heaviest rains will fall along the west side of the hurricane's track, and the greatest wind damage will occur on the east side. I don't think flooding from heavy rains will be a huge concern in North Carolina, which is under moderate to severe drought. Irene's rains are likely to do some good in Southeast Virginia, where a fire triggered by lightning from a thunderstorm on August 4 sparked a fire in the Dismal Swamp that is burning out of control. Right now, it does not appear that tornadoes will be a major concern, but there will probably be a few weak tornadoes. Hurricane Bob of 1991, the last hurricane to affect New England, spawned six tornadoes, most of them weak F-0 and F-1 twisters.
Figure 2. Predicted rainfall for the 5-day period ending at 8 am EDT Wednesday August 31, as issued by NOAA/HPC.
For those of you wanting to know your odds of receiving hurricane force or tropical storm force winds, I recommend the NHC wind probability product.
Wunderground has detailed storm surge maps for the U.S. coast.
The National Hurricane Center's Interactive Storm Surge RIsk Map, which allows one to pick a particular Category hurricane and zoom in, is a good source of storm surge risk information.
Wunderblogger Mike Theiss is in Nassau, documenting the storm's impact on the Bahamas.
Internet radio show on Irene at 4:30pm EDT
Wunderground meteorologists will be discussing Hurricane Irene on a special edition of our Internet radio show, the Daily Downpour, today (Friday) at 4:30pm EDT. Shaun Tanner , Tim Roche, Angela Fritz, and Rob Carver will there, and I will be available if my schedule permits. Listeners can email in or call in questions. The email address to ask questions is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Portlight mobilizes for Irene
The Bahamas have been hit hard by Irene, and unfortunately, it appears that the Northeast U.S. may have its share of hurricane victims before Irene finally dissipates. My favorite disaster relief charity, Portlight.org, is mobilizing to help, and has sent out their relief trailer and crew to North Carolina. Check out this blog to see what they're up to; donations are always needed.
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