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Irene slightly weaker, but still very dangerous

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 8:59 PM GMT on August 25, 2011

An Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft investigating Irene has found a slightly weaker storm. As of 4pm EDT, the strongest surface winds seen by the aircraft with their SFMR instrument were 91 mph in the storm's northeast eyewall. Highest winds measured at their flight level of 10,000 feet were 114 mph. Assuming the aircraft missed sampling the strongest winds of the hurricane, it's a good guess that Irene has fallen to Category 2 strength with 100 - 105 mph winds, even though the official advisory is higher. The aircraft noted that the eyewall was missing a large chunk on it southwest side, but the central pressure was about the same as early this morning, 950 mb. Satellite imagery from late this morning and early this afternoon showed a distinctly lopsided appearance to Irene's cloud pattern, with not much heavy thunderstorm activity on the southwest side. This was due to moderate wind shear of 10 - 20 knots due to upper-level winds out of the southwest. This shear was able to disrupt Irene's circulation while it was attempting to complete an eyewall replacement cycle, resulting in dry air getting wrapped into the core, which can be seen as a streak of darker clouds in this morning's MODIS satellite image (Figure 1.) satellite loops show that Irene is beginning to recover from this adversity, with a respectable amount of heavy thunderstorms beginning to wrap around to the southwest side from the north. An upper-level wind analysis from the University of Wisconsin CIMSS site shows that Irene's upper-level outflow is much more restricted than was the case 24 hours ago. An upper-level outflow channel that was open to the south is gone, and has been replaced by shearing winds from the west and southwest that are ripping into the hurricane. I think it is 30% likely that Irene will have trouble recovering from this setback, and will not reach the peak intensity of 120 mph winds it had earlier. However, it is more likely that the hurricane will be able to re-establish its upper-level outflow and overcome the shear, based on the latest satellite loops, plus forecasts from the various hurricane models such as the GFDL, HWRF, and ECMWF, which all show Irene at Category 3 strength as it approaches North Carolina on Saturday afternoon.

Figure 1. MODIS satellite image of Hurricane Irene taken at 11:50 am EDT Thursday August 25, when Irene was a Category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds. The eye of the storm was just off the coast of Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Note the rather squashed appearance of the hurricane, with less heavy thunderstorms on its southwest side. Upper level winds of 10 - 20 knots out of the southwest were eating away at the clouds on this side, and you can see that this shear helped drive some dry air into the hurricane, which can be seen as a darker strip of cloud spiraling into the center from the south, around the east side, then into the center along the northwest side of the storm. Image credit: a href=http://rapidfire.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov/gallery/ NASA.

Irene likely to bring destructive fresh water flooding
In this morning's post, I highlighted the threat from storm surge flooding, but flash flooding and river flooding from Irene's torrential rains are also a huge threat. The hurricane is expected to bring rains in excess of 12" to 100-mile swath from Eastern North Carolina northwards along the coast, through New York City. The danger of fresh water flooding is greatest in northern New Jersey, Southeast Pennsylvania, and Southeast New York, where the soils are saturated from heavy August rains that were among the heaviest on record. At Philadelphia, rainfall so far this August has been 13 inches, not far from the record for rainiest month of all-time, the 15.82" that fell in August 1867. This record will almost certainly be broken when Irene's rains arrive. In general, the heaviest rains will fall along the west side of the hurricane's track, and the greatest wind damage will occur on the east side. Right now, it does not appear that tornadoes will be a major concern, but there will probably be a few weak tornadoes. Hurricane Bob of 1991, the last hurricane to affect New England, spawned six tornadoes, most of them weak F-0 and F-1 twisters.

Figure 2. Predicted rainfall for the 5-day period ending at 8 am EDT Tuesday August 30, as issued by NOAA/HPC.

Latest forecast for Irene
The latest set of model runs don't show any major changes to Irene's track or intensity. Irene will bring damaging winds, torrential rains, and an extremely dangerous storm surge to the coast, affecting a huge area of the mid-Atlantic and New England. Take this storm seriously! Expect widespread disruptions to electric power, transportation, and water systems. Be prepared for many days without power, as utility crews will be overwhelmed with the damage. Irene is capable of inundating portions of the coast under 10 - 15 feet of water, to the highest storm surge depths ever recorded. I strongly recommend that all residents of the mid-Atlantic and New England coast familiarize themselves with their storm surge risk. The best source of that information is the National Hurricane Center's Interactive Storm Surge Risk Map, which allows one to pick a particular Category hurricane and zoom in to see the height above ground level a worst-case storm surge may go. If you prefer static images, use wunderground's Storm Surge Inundation Maps. If these tools indicate you may be at risk, consult your local or state emergency management office to determine if you are in a hurricane evacuation zone. Mass evacuations of low-lying areas along the entire coast of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia are at least 50% likely to be ordered by Saturday. The threat to the coasts of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine is less certain, but evacuations may be ordered in those states, as well. Irene is a very dangerous storm for an area that has no experience with hurricanes, and I strongly urge you to evacuate from the coast if an evacuation is ordered by local officials. My area of greatest concern is the coast from Ocean City, Maryland, to Atlantic City, New Jersey. It is possible that this stretch of coast will receive a direct hit from a slow-moving Category 2 hurricane hitting during the highest tide of the month, bringing a 10 - 15 foot storm surge.

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.

Jeff Masters
Irene Rainband from downtown Ft. Lauderdale
Irene Rainband from downtown Ft. Lauderdale
8/25/11 0910 local time.
Early at the beach to snap the waves from Hurricane Irene east of our coast, the wind was unreal with thunderclouds rolling in with lots of rain for the day.


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