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By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:29 PM GMT on August 28, 2012
The winds and water are rising all along the coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle as Tropical Storm Isaac makes its final approach. Two hurricane hunter aircraft in the storm are measuring a steadily lowering pressure and increasing winds aloft, but hurricane-force winds have not yet been observed at the surface. The 8:30 am center fix found a pressure of 976 mb, which is very low for a tropical storm. Top surface winds measured with the SFMR instrument were 70 mph, but the plane measured 102 mph at an altitude of 5,000 feet. It's more typical to see surface winds of 85 mph with a storm with these characteristics. Infrared and visible satellite loops and hurricane hunter reports from this morning have shown that Isaac has developed a 25-mile diameter eye, though the eyewall has not yet formed a full circle around the eye. Heavy thunderstorm activity is lacking on the north side, where light wind shear of 5 -10 knots is still pumping some dry air into the circulation.
Figure 1. Morning satellite image of Isaac. Note how dry air has wrapped into the west side of the storm, causing a lack of heavy thunderstorm activity.
One of the most remarkable features of Isaac has been the huge spiral band that parked itself along most of the east coast of Florida and remained there for an entire day, despite the fact the center of the storm moved 400 miles away. This rain band was amplified by a weak trough of low pressure along the East Coast, which pulled away from the coast Monday night, taking the band of heavy rain out to sea (except for a few lingering showers near West Palm Beach.) Isaac's heaviest rains fell along a swath from the east coast of Florida near West Palm Beach to the center of the state, just south of Orlando. The 2-day rainfall total of 9.03" at West Palm Beach brought their monthly rainfall total to 22.28", a new August record (old record: 20.12" in 1995.) Vero Beach's 6.48" of rain was a record for any August day. A possible tornado touched down there, damaging 20 mobile homes. In the Keys, rainfall totals as high as 7.94" (at Upper Matecumbe Key) were measured. Heavy rains from Isaac are lingering over Cuba but have ended in Haiti and the Dominican Republic; flash floods in Haiti from Isaac's torrential rains killed at least 24, and two died in the Dominican Republic. The big concern in Haiti is the heavy damage that was done to crops, and the likelihood that the storm's rains will worsen the cholera epidemic that has killed over 7,000 Haitians.
Figure 2. Radar-estimated rainfall from Miami, Florida radar shows that Isaac has dumped a wide swath of 8+ inches of rain (orange colors) across the state. Rainfall amounts in excess of 20" may have fallen just west of West Palm Beach, though the highest amount reported by a rain gauge was 13.10" at Greenacres in Palm Beach County.
Latest model runs for Isaac
The latest set of 0Z and 06Z (8 pm and 2 am EDT) model runs are fairly unified taking Isaac ashore near Southeast Louisiana late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, but continue to show some differences in what happens after that. Isaac may scoot nearly west-northwest just inland along the coast into Texas, as predicted by the ECMWF model, or head straight inland to the northwest and into Arkansas, as predicted by the GFS model. The latest 8-day precipitation forecast from the GFS model calls for 10 - 20 inches of rain over much of Louisiana. It appears likely that Arkansas will see some heavy rains of up to five inches, which would help put a dent in the exceptional drought conditions there.
Intensity forecast for Isaac
Low wind shear of 10 knots or less is likely until landfall, along with very warm ocean temperatures. An analysis of upper level winds from the University of Wisconsin CIMSS shows that Isaac's upper-level outflow is the strongest we've seen, with a solid outflow channel to the south. These conditions favor continued strengthening of Isaac until landfall. However, we've observed in the past many instances of hurricanes suddenly weakening in the final 12 hours before making landfall along the Central Gulf Coast. Katrina, Gustav, Dennis, Ivan, and Rita all did so. A July 2012 paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Rosenfeld et al. titled, AEROSOL EFFECTS ON MICROSTRUCTURE AND INTENSITY OF TROPICAL CYCLONES, theorizes that this may happen because of the impact of small particles that get pulled into the outer circulation of hurricanes, seeding the clouds. These small particles, primarily from air pollution, serve as the seed around which water condenses, increasing the rain in the outer spiral bands. The increase in rain and heat energy at the periphery of the storm comes at the expense of the eyewall and inner core, where the winds tend to weaken. A detailed modeling study by Khain et al. (2010) of Hurricane Katrina in the final day before landfall was able to reproduce the storm's weakening only when this air pollution effect was included. This impact of small particles on hurricanes is not included in any operational hurricane model.
Figure 3. Tide gauge data from Shell Beach, located in Lake Borgne just east of New Orleans. The green line shows the storm surge. The red line is the storm tide, the height of the water above Mean Sea Level (MSL.)
Storm surge observations from Isaac
Isaac's storm surge has peaked along the west coast of Florida. As I explain in our Storm Surge Tutorial, we are most interested in the storm tide--the height above Mean Sea Level (MSL) of the tide plus the storm surge. The storm tide is the number given in NHC advisories for how much above ground level the ocean will be at the coast. The storm surge is the extra elevation of the water due to wind blowing on the water, and does not include the action of waves on top of the water, nor the tide. Tide gauges are specially constructed so that transient waves do not impact water level measurements. At Cedar Key on the West Florida coast north of Tampa, a storm surge of 3' and storm tide of 3.8' were observed early this morning. These were the highest water levels measured at any tide gauge along the Florida west coast. Higher storm surges are occurring in the Florida Panhandle. As of 9 am EDT, here were the storm surge/storm tide measurements along the Florida Panhandle:
Apalachicola, FL: 3.5' storm surge, 4' storm tide
Panama City, FL: 2.3' storm surge, 3.3' storm tide
Pensacola, FL: 1.5' storm surge, 2.5' storm tide
A storm surge of 3.5 feet was recorded at 10 am EDT at Shell Beach on the east side of New Orleans in Lake Borgne. This site will have one of the highest surge values during Isaac; a storm surge of 9.5' was measured at Shell Beach during Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
Figure 4. Category 2 Hurricane Gustav of 2008 followed a very similar path to Isaac, and brought a storm tide (the combined effect of the storm surge and tidal levels) of up to 14.5' above ground level to the east side of New Orleans. Isaac's surge may be similar, though probably a little less, than Gustav's.
Figure 5. Track of Hurricane Gustav of 2008, which followed a path very similar to that of Isaac's predicted path.
Isaac: similar to Category 2 Hurricane Gustav of 2008 in destructive power?
Isaac is a huge and slow-moving storm, with tropical storm-force winds that extend out 205 miles from the center. Isaac has cut its forward speed down from 14 mph yesterday to 10 mph today, and a large swath of the coast will be subject to high winds and a large storm surge for an usually long period of time for a hurricane--up to 24 hours. Long duration winds are much more damaging than short duration winds, and a long duration storm surge event allows damage to occur during multiple high tide cycles. The long duration storm event will also allow very high rainfall totals, resulting in greater fresh-water flooding problems than usual. As a result, I expect Isaac's to cause more damage than the typical Category 1 hurricane. The 9:30 am EDT Integrated Kinetic Energy analysis from NOAA's Hurricane Research Division put the destructive potential of Isaac's winds near 2.3 on a scale of 0 to 6, but the destructive potential of Isaacs's storm surge was 4.1 on a scale of 0 to 6. For comparison, the storm surge destructive potential of Category 2 Hurricane Gustav of 2008 was rated at 4.2 on a scale of 0 to 6, and the wind destructive potential was 1.1--which is lower than Isaac's, even though Isaac was just a tropical storm at 9:30 am EDT. Gustav brought a storm tide (the combined height of the storm surge and high tide) of 14.5' to the east side of New Orleans, and 11' to Waveland, Mississippi. However, the destructive potential of Isaac's surge may be overrated by this analysis. Wave heights this morning from buoy and ships in Isaac have mostly been below 15', which is quite unimpressive. One ship report to the SE of the storm had a 19' wave height (thanks to meteorologist Steve Gregory for pointing this out.) With only another 12 - 18 hours over water, Isaac likely won't have time for its slowing increasing winds to build up a storm surge that will reach as high as 14', like Gustav did. The official NHC forecast of maximum storm surge height of 12' looks like a good one. The highest rainfall total observed in Gustav was 21" at Larto Lake, Louisiana, and I expect we'll exceed that for Isaac, since the storm is moving more slowly. Gustav spawned 41 tornadoes--21 in Mississippi, 11 in Louisiana, 6 in Florida, 2 in Arkansas, and 1 in Alabama. The strongest tornado was an EF2 in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana. Isaac will likely produce 10+ tornadoes. The total damage from Gustav in the U.S. was $4.5 billion (2012 dollars.) I expect Isaac's damage total will be in the $500 million - $4 billion range.
Invest 97L in the Middle Atlantic
A tropical wave (Invest 97L) is located in the Middle Atlantic, about 1250 miles west-northwest of the Cape Verde Islands. The storm has a modest amount of spin and heavy thunderstorms, and is under moderate wind shear. In their 8 am EDT Tropical Weather Outlook, NHC gave 97L a 40% chance of developing by Thursday morning. None of the reliable models foresee that 97L will be a threat to any land areas.
Another tropical wave that moved off the coast of Africa on Sunday is located just southwest of the Cape Verde Islands, and is moving west at 15 mph. Several models develop the disturbance into a tropical depression late this week, and NHC is giving the disturbance a 10% chance of becoming a tropical depression by Thursday morning. The disturbance could begin to affect the Northern Lesser Antilles as early as Saturday night, though our two best models, the GFS and ECMWF, predict the center of the disturbance will pass a few hundred miles north of the islands. The disturbance could be a long-range threat to Bermuda.
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