Isaac approaching hurricane strength
Isaac is walking the line of hurricane status this afternoon after a hurricane hunter mission investigated the storm and found winds of 80+ mph with the SFMR instrument, which looks down at the surface from the plane and estimates what wind speeds are. This instrument has a notoriously rough time in doing so when there's heavy rain, and since the strongest winds were recorded coinciding with the strongest rain, you can imagine that this region of high wind speed could be suspect. The hurricane hunter mission is still in the storm, so I imagine they will issue a special update if needed. Currently the best estimate of wind speed within the storm is 70 mph. Isaac's pressure has been dropping today as well and is now 981 mb. Isaac is moving northwest at 12 mph--no change since this morning. Satellite loops show that Isaac remains large, though asymmetric, with most of the strong thunderstorm activity on the west and southwest side. Isaac's southeast side continues to struggle with dry air and wind shear, which could help to moderate Isaac's intensity as it approaches the coast.
An oil platform in the northern Gulf of Mexico is reporting sustained winds from the north-northeast at 40 mph this afternoon. A buoy west of Tampa, Florida is recording sustained winds around 30 mph, and platforms south of Louisiana are recording winds from 35-40 mph. The widespread heavy rain of yesterday has lightened up in Florida, but a strong line of thunderstorms in one of Isaac's outer bands is training northward along and offshore of the east coast of Florida, affecting everyone from Miami to Jacksonville.
This afternoon the AP reported that Isaac's death toll in Haiti jumped to 19, which puts Isaac's total death count at 21. It appears most of the deaths in Haiti were due to collapsing structures.
Figure 1. Satellite imagery of Tropical Storm Isaac around 3pm EDT on Monday.
Models seem to be coming into better agreement today on where Isaac will make landfall, closing in on Louisiana and New Orleans as most likely landfall point. The ECMWF, HWRF, and UKMET all suggest New Orleans as the landfall location. The GFS is only slightly west of that. The GFDL is the farthest west, predicting landfall near the Louisiana-Texas border. Landfall timing remains Tuesday night. Beyond landfall, Isaac is expected to move north toward the Midwest through the rest of this week, however, models are showing that the system will likely slow down around landfall time, prolonging impacts like surge and inland flooding.
The closer Isaac gets to landfall without having formed an eye, the better it is for intensity at landfall. Isaac has strengthened only modestly in the past 24 hours, and is still struggling with a less-than-conducive atmospheric environment. The HWRF remains on the high end of the intensity spectrum, suggesting Isaac will be a weak category 2 upon landfall. Other models suggest it will be a strong category 1, but the difference is splitting hairs. The National Hurricane Center's official forecast is for Isaac to continue strengthening over the next day, reaching category 2 at landfall.
Figure 2. Tide gauge data from St. Petersburg, Florida. The green line shows the storm surge. As Isaac's counterclockwise winds blew offshore this morning, water levels feel two feet at St. Petersburg. The winds switched to onshore this afternoon as the center of Isaac moved more to the northwest, bringing a storm surge of two feet to the city.
Storm surge observations from Isaac
This morning, as Isaac's counter-clockwise winds brought offshore winds to the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, ocean waters fell two feet along the coast. This afternoon, winds have shifted to blow onshore, and a two foot storm surge has been observed at Naples, Fort Meyers, and St. Petersburg on the west coast of Florida. Water levels have also begun to rise along the coast of Louisiana, with a storm surge of 1.5 feet already occurring at Shell Beach on the east side of New Orleans in Lake Borgne.
Angela and Jeff