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Irene continues to weaken

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 8:46 PM GMT on August 26, 2011

Satellite data and measurements from the Hurricane Hunters show that Irene continues to weaken. A 1:32 pm EDT center fix by an Air Force Reserve aircraft found that Irene's eyewall is still gone, and the central pressure had risen to 951 mb from a low of 942 mb this morning. The winds measured in Irene near the surface support classifying it as a strong Category 1 hurricane or weak Category 2. 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 southwesterly wind shear of 10 - 20 knots. 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 Wilmington, North Carolina, shows that the outermost spiral bands from Irene have moved ashore over North Carolina. Winds at buoy 41004 100 miles offshore from Charleston, SC increased to 47 mph, gusting to 60 mph at 3 pm EDT, with significant wave heights of 25 feet.

Figure 1. MODIS satellite image of Hurricane Irene taken at 11:50 am EDT Friday August 26, when Irene was a Category 2 hurricane with 105 mph winds. The eyewall collapsed several hours before this image was taken, and no eye is apparent. Image credit: a href=http://rapidfire.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/gallery/ NASA.

Figure 2. Distribution of Irene's wind field at 3:30 pm 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 for Irene
With its eyewall collapsed and just 18 more hours over water before landfall, Irene does not 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 strong Category 1 hurricane at landfall in North Carolina on Saturday. Based on the latest wind analysis from NOAA's Hurricane Research Division (Figure 2) and Irene's continued weakening trend, I predict that the 80-mile section of North Carolina coast to the right of where Irene makes landfall will receive sustained hurricane-force winds of 75 - 85 mph on Saturday at landfall; the 80-mile section of coast to the left will receive 55 - 75 mph winds. High wind shear of 30 knots will begin ripping into Irene Sunday morning when it is near Southern New Jersey, and more rapid weakening will occur. By the time Irene arrives on Long Island Sunday afternoon, it will probably have top sustained winds in the 65 - 75 mph range. 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 3:30 pm EDT this afternoon, a wind analysis from NOAA/HRD (Figure 2) indicated that the potential storm surge damage from Irene still rated a 5.0 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 steadily decline as Irene moves northwards and weakens, we can still expect a storm surge one full Saffir-Simpson Category higher than Irene's winds when it impacts the coast. 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. I continue to give a 20% chance that a 3 - 4 foot storm surge high enough to over-top the Manhattan flood walls and swamp the New York City subway system will occur on Sunday. The latest 11 am probabilistic storm surge map from NHC shows a 20 - 30% chance of a storm surge in excess of 3 feet in New York Harbor (Figure 4.) Keep in mind that these maps are calculated for normal tide level, and this weekend's high tides will be nearly 1 foot above normal.

Insurance company AIR-Worldwide is estimating that insured damages from Irene in the U.S. will be $1.5 - $6 billion. They estimate losses in the Caribbean at $0.5 - $1.1 billion from Irene.

Figure 3. Storm surge heights, in feet above normal tide level, which have a 20 percent chance of being exceeded during the next 3 days.  The graphic is based upon an ensemble of Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model runs using the current National Hurricane Center (NHC) official hurricane advisory. The exceedance heights depend on the historical accuracy of NHCs forecasts of hurricane track, and wind speed, and an estimate of storm size. Image credit: NOAA.

Figure 4. Overall chance that storm surges will be greater than 3 feet above normal tide levels during the next 3 days.  The graphic is based upon an ensemble of Sea, Lake, and Overland Surge from Hurricanes (SLOSH) model runs using the current National Hurricane Center (NHC) official hurricane advisory.  Storm surge probabilities depend on the historical accuracy of NHCs forecasts of hurricane track, and wind speed, and an estimate of storm size. Image credit: NOAA.

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 take your questions. The email address to ask questions is broadcast@wunderground.com.

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.