Isaac remains disorganized
Tropical Storm Isaac has strengthened slightly, data from the hurricane hunters show, but the storm remains disorganized and difficult to forecast. If you have to make decisions based upon what Isaac will do, I highly recommend that you wait until at least Friday morning to make a decision, if at all possible, as the forecasts then should be of significantly higher accuracy. Isaac continues to have a large area of light winds about 50 miles across near its center. This makes the storm subject to reformations of the center closer to areas of heavy thunderstorms that form, resulting in semi-random course changes. Until Isaac consolidates, the lack of a well-defined center will make forecasts of the storm's behavior less accurate than usual. An Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft is in Isaac this afternoon, and has found that surface tropical storm-force winds on the east side of the storm, south of Puerto Rico, have undergone a modest expansion. These winds were mostly in the 40 mph range, with a few areas of 45 mph winds. The surface pressure remained fairly high, at 1004 mb. Infrared and visible satellite loops show that Isaac has fairly symmetric circular cloud pattern, with developing spiral bands that are contracting towards the center, which suggests intensification. However, the storm has a very clumpy appearance, and is a long way from being a hurricane. Given the storm's continued reluctance to organize, Isaac is unlikely to reach hurricane strength before encountering Haiti and Cuba. An analysis of upper level winds from the University of Wisconsin CIMSS shows an upper-level outflow channel well-established to the north, and an intermittent outflow channel to the south. Radar imagery from Puerto Rico shows some weak low-level spiral bands that haven't changed much in intensity or organization this afternoon. NOAA buoy 42060 reported 1-minute mean winds of 35 mph and a wind gust of 40 early this afternoon. At St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, wind gusts up to 45 mph were observed early this afternoon. Isaac's rains caused major flooding last night in Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost islands of the Lesser Antilles chain, according to the Trinidad Express. Isaac's rains have not been heavy enough today to cause flooding problems on other islands.
Figure 1. True-color MODIS image of Isaac taken at 1:40 pm EDT August 23, 2012. Image credit: NASA.
Latest model runs for Isaac
The latest set of 12Z (8 am EDT) model runs have shifted to the west compared to the previous set of runs. The models continue to show a west-northwestward track to a point on the south coast of Hispaniola, then across eastern Cuba and into the Florida Straits between Florida and Cuba. A trough of low pressure is then expected to pull Isaac to the northwest and then north, towards the Florida Panhandle. The big news in this model cycle is that both of our top models--the GFS and ECMWF--predict that 5 - 6 days from now, the trough of low pressure pulling Isaac to the north may not be strong enough to finish the job. These models predict that the trough will lift out and a ridge of high pressure will build in, forcing Isaac more to the west. The GFS predicts this will occur after Isaac makes landfall in the Florida Panhandle, resulting in Isaac moving slowly to the west over land, from Georgia to Alabama. The ECMWF predicts the westward motion will happen while Isaac is in the northern Gulf of Mexico, resulting in an eventual landfall near the Louisiana/Texas border on Thursday. There are some huge issues to resolve to make an accurate long-range track forecast for Isaac. Where will its center consolidate? How will the interaction with the mountains of Hispaniola and Cuba will affect it? Where will Isaac pop off the coast of Cuba? Hopefully, the data being collected by the NOAA jet this afternoon will give us a more unified set of model forecasts early Friday morning. For now, pay attention to the cone of uncertainty. If you're in the cone, you might get hit.
Figure 2. Predicted 5-day rainfall total ending at 8 am EDT Tuesday August 28 from Tropical Storm Isaac. Graphics were generated from the 12Z (8 am EDT) August 23, 2012 run of the HWRF model (top) and GFDL model (bottom). The heaviest rainfall is expected to occur in a 50 - 80 wide wide swath along and to the right of where the center tracks. Amounts in excess of 8 inches (yellow colors) are predicted for portions of the Dominican Republic and Haiti from the HWRF model, but not the GFDL model. Given the current disorganization of Isaac, these rainfall amounts are probably at least 20% too high. Image credit: Morris Bender, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.