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Western Caribbean disturbance 99L near tropical depression strength

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:33 PM GMT on October 20, 2010

A tropical disturbance (Invest 99L) near the Cayman Islands is drifting eastwards towards Jamaica, and has changed little in organization this morning, but is very close to tropical depression status. The storm is bringing heavy rain to the Cayman Islands; 3.85" inches has fallen over the past 48 hours at Savannah on Grand Cayman Island. Heavy rains will continue over the Cayman Islands today and spread to western Jamaica this afternoon. Recent satellite imagery shows that 99L has a well-defined surface circulation, but the center is exposed to view and 99L has a relatively meager amount of heavy thunderstorm activity. Wind shear is marginal for development, 15 - 20 knots, due to the clockwise flow of air around an upper-level high pressure system near the coast of Honduras. The high is bringing strong upper-level winds out of the southwest to 99L. Water vapor satellite loops show considerable dry air to the west and north of 99L, and the strong southwesterly winds over the storm are bringing some of this dry into into the core of the storm, keeping all the heavy thunderstorm development confined to the east side of the center. The waters beneath 99L are very warm, 29°C, but 99L will not be able to take advantage of these warm waters until the shear relaxes. The Hurricane Hunters will be in 99L around 11am EDT this morning to see if the storm is indeed a tropical depression.

Forecast for 99L
The latest SHIPS model forecast predicts that wind shear over the Western Caribbean will stay marginal for development, 15 - 25 knots, for the remainder of today, then decline to the moderate range, 10 - 20 knots, on Tuesday, as 99L positions itself more underneath the upper-level high near the coast of Honduras. Any motion by 99L to the southwest will tend to decrease the shear over 99L, and any motion to the north or east will increase the shear, so 99L's current eastwards drift is detrimental for development. Steering currents will be weak Wednesday through Friday in the Western Caribbean, making it difficult to predict where 99L may wander to, and how much shear might affect the storm. By Saturday, a ridge of high pressure is expected to build in to the north of 99L, forcing the storm on a generally westward track. This should allow 99L to find an environment with less shear. The GFDL and HWRF model predicts a more west-northwestward track, with 99L passing through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and Mexico on Sunday or Monday as a hurricane. The GFS, ECMWF, and NOGAPS models predict a more west-southwesterly path, with 99L making landfall in Belize Sunday or Monday. NHC is giving 99L a 70% chance of developing into a tropical depression by Friday; I'd put these odds at 80%, and expect this will become Tropical Storm Richard by Thursday.

Figure 1. Morning satellite image of Invest 99L.

Death toll from Super Typhoon Megi in the Philippines remarkably low
The power is still out and communications are down over the majority of the northern portion of the Philippines' Luzon Island blasted by Typhoon Megi yesterday, so the full extent of the destruction wrought by the great storm is still unclear. However, the death toll from the great storm stands at only 19, reflecting the superior effort Philippines officials made to evacuate low-lying areas and get people out of locations prone to flash flooding and mudslides. Previous major typhoons to strike the Philippines have nearly always killed hundreds, and sometime thousands, so the preparation and evacuation efforts for Megi likely saved hundreds of lives. Megi hit Luzon on Monday morning at 3:30 UTC as a Category 5 super typhoon with sustained winds of 165 mph and a central pressure of 914 mb. Severe damage was done to Isabela Province in northern Luzon, and media reports indicate that 200,000 people are homeless.

Figure 2. Visible MODIS satellite image of Megi from NASA's Aqua satellite taken at 1:30am EDT October 20, 2010. At the time, Megi was a Category 4 typhoon with 135 mph winds. Image credit: NASA.

Passage over Luzon Island destroyed Megi's eyewall and inner core region, and the storm compensated by expanding and intensifying the portions of its circulation that were over water. Now that its center is back over water in the South China Sea, Megi has re-developed its inner core and has intensified into a formidable Category 4 typhoon with 135 mph winds. Megi has been able to maintain its larger size, and is now a much larger typhoon than when it hit the Philippines. This is similar to what happened to Hurricane Ike in 2008 when it passed over Cuba, and helped give Ike a very destructive storm surge when it came ashore over Texas. Wind shear is a low 5 - 10 knots over Megi, and the waters of the South China Sea have a very high total heat content to great depth, so Megi should be able to remain a very dangerous major typhoon through Friday. The larger size of Megi means that it will be able to deliver a significant storm surge in excess of ten feet to the coast of China of Friday or Saturday, when the storm is expected to make landfall north of Hong Kong. As the storm approaches the coast on Friday, wind shear is expected to rise to the moderate or high range, and the total heat content of the ocean will drop significantly, so some weakening is to be expected. Still, Megi will probably hit China as a major Category 3 typhoon, bringing a significant storm surge, high winds, and widespread torrential rains that will likely make this a multi-billion dollar disaster for China. The outer rain bands of Megi are already affecting the coast of China north of Hong Kong, as seen on Hong Kong radar and Taiwan radar.

Figure 3. Still frame of damage to NE Luzon Island from a video posted to YouTube by storm chaser James Reynolds of typhoonfury.com.

Next update
I'll have an update later today, with the timing depending upon what the Hurricane Hunters find.

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.