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Bill weakens, but still generating huge waves

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:29 PM GMT on August 20, 2009

Hurricane Bill has peaked in intensity, and now shows signs of weakening. Visible and infrared satellite imagery show that the hurricane is no longer as symmetric as it once was, with an oval instead of circular shape to its cloud pattern. Upper-level cirrus clouds are restricted on the storm's southwest side, indicating that upper-level winds from the southwest are shearing the storm. The University of Wisconsin CIMSS wind shear analysis shows about 10 - 15 knots of wind shear impacting Bill. The latest 8:18am EDT eye report from the Hurricane Hunters indicated that the eyewall had a gap in its southwest side, and the pressure had risen 2 mb since last night, to 951 mb. Maximum winds at the surface observed by the SFMR instrument were only Category 2 strength, though winds measured at the aircraft flight level of 10,000 feet still suggested Bill may be a Category 3 hurricane.

Wind shear is forecast to remain low to moderate, 5 - 15 knots, for the next three days, and it is possible Bill may see a relaxation of the wind shear affecting it, allowing re-intensification to Category 4 status. Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) will be plenty warm over the next three days, as Bill traverses a region of ocean with SSTs of 28 - 29°C. Total ocean heat content is at a maximum today, and will gradually decline over the next three days.

Figure 1. Visible satellite image of Bill at 1:33 pm EDT Thursday 8/20/09. Bill had an oval shape oriented SW - NE, and was missing upper-level cirrus clouds on the southwest side, indicating that wind shear from strong upper-level southwesterly winds was affecting it.

Water vapor satellite loops continue to show two small "short-wave" troughs of low pressure to the northwest of Bill, and these troughs are continuing to steer Bill to the northwest. The short wave troughs (so called because they have a relatively small amplitude and wavelength) are not strong enough to turn Bill due north, so Bill is expected to miss Bermuda. The official NHC forecast has the radius of tropical storm force winds from Bill barely reaching Bermuda on Saturday, so the island can expect sustained winds in the 35 - 45 mph range for a few hours on Saturday if the hurricane follows the NHC forecast track.

Figure 2. Visible satellite image of Bill's eye zoomed in, taken from NASA's Aqua spacecraft at 10:15am EDT Wednesday August 19, 2009. Image credit: NASA GSFC.

An unusually strong "long wave" trough of low pressure (called long wave because of its large amplitude and wavelength) is expected to develop along the U.S. East Coast this weekend. This trough will turn Bill to the north, and also bring high levels of wind shear in the 40 - 65 knot range on Sunday. The models have moved the forecast landfall point of Bill several hundred miles back and forth to the east and west over the past few days, but mostly agree that Cape Cod and Maine will probably miss a direct hit by Bill. However, these regions are still at the edge of Bill's cone of uncertainty, and a direct strike by Bill at Category 1 or 2 strength is a possibility. However, it is more likely that Bill will come ashore over the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. Bill will be weakening rapidly as it makes landfall, and is likely to be a Category 1 hurricane if it hits Nova Scotia, or strong tropical storm if it hits Newfoundland. If Bill follows the official NHC forecast path, winds on Cape Cod and in eastern Maine are likely to remain below tropical storm force (below 39 mph).

Bill's waves
Hurricane Bill is generating huge waves, thanks to its enormous size and major hurricane intensity. Bill passed about 75 miles southwest of Buoy 41044 this morning, and the buoy recorded sustained winds of 67 mph, gusting to 92 mph, with a significant wave height (the height of the average 1/3 highest waves) of 38.8 feet. Output from NOAA's Wavewatch III model suggests that significant wave heights near Bill's center will peak at 50 feet by Saturday. Large swells from Bill will reach Bermuda this afternoon, increasing seas to 5 - 9 feet, according to the Bermuda Weather Service. Seas will increase to 10 - 20 feet on Friday and 20 - 30 feet on Saturday as Bill makes its closest approach to the island.

In the U.S., Bill's swells will reach New York's Long Island on Friday afternoon, and seas will build to 7 - 10' on Saturday and 12 - 16' on Sunday in the near shore waters. By Friday night, Bill's swells will be affecting the entire U.S. East Coast from Florida to Cape Cod. Maximum sea heights in near shore waters over the weekend will be about 7' from Florida to South Carolina, 11 - 14' along the North Carolina coast, 8 - 11' along the mid-Atlantic coast, and 10 - 11' along the coast of Maine. The highest waves along the U.S. coast will occur at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where waves of 18 - 23' are being forecast by NOAA for Sunday. Bill's high waves are going to cause millions of dollars in erosion damage and create very dangerous rip currents and swimming conditions along the coast.

Hurricane History of Canada
Canada is no stranger to hurricanes, and receives a hit by a Category 1 or stronger hurricane several times per decade, on average. The most recent hurricane strike on Canada occurred in 2008, when Hurricane Kyle struck the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, just north of Yarmouth. Kyle was rated a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph winds at landfall, but damage was limited to uprooted trees, scattered power outages, and minor street flooding in Shelburne. The other hurricane to hit Nova Scotia this decade was much more serious. In 2003, Hurricane Juan made landfall at Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds. A record storm surge of 4.9 feet inundated the city's waterfront, resulting in extensive flooding of the Halifax and Dartmouth waterfront properties. A buoy just outside Halifax Harbor measured a significant wave height of 9 meters (30 feet), and maximum wave heights of 20 meters (65 feet). Four people died in the storm. Juan downed a phenomenal number of trees--agriculture specialists estimate that 50 - 100 million trees blew down in Nova Scotia in two hours, with one million downed in Halifax alone. The Canadian Hurricane Center has a nice historical hurricane page with more information and photos.

Figure 3. Close up view of the damage at the Bedford Yacht Club after Hurricane Juan in 2003. Photo: Gary Dunbrack. Image credit: Environment Canada website on Hurricane Juan.

Elsewhere in the tropics
There are no threat areas in the Atlantic worth mentioning today, and no reliable models are calling for tropical cyclone development over the next seven days.

I'll have an update Friday morning.

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.