From the ABC 7 Weather team

Hurricane Irene update: Storm expected to intensify near U.S.

August 22, 2011 - 02:52 PM
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Meet Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 Atlantic season that's left one-fifth of Puerto Ricans without power.

Some 800,000 people in Puerto Rico were left without power when Hurricane Irene visited on Sunday. The storm is expected to track toward the East Coast and intensify in the coming days. (Image from Aug. 22, courtesy NOAA's Environmental Visualization Lab)

The wait is over! Early Monday morning, the swirling waters of the ocean unveiled the first cyclone of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season, and it's a beaut. At this time, Hurricane Irene is a Category 1 spinner looming over the northern Dominican Republic, with tropical-storm force winds extending 160 miles from its center and a nice head of thundering clouds reaching 9 miles into the sky.

The storm whipped through Puerto Rico on Sunday carrying loads of thunderstorms inside its violently rocking centrifuge, knocking out power to about one-fifth of the population. (Mira la foto galeria over at local news outlet El Nuevo Dia.) The storm is on track to stir up trouble in the Dominican Republic and then intensify to a Category 3 hurricane as it travels across the Bahama Islands.

Many an ear were no doubt popping in San Juan as Irene whirled by. Look at this stark drop in barometric pressure on the island, posted earlier today by ABC7's senior meteorologist Bob Ryan. If it reaches Florida later this week, Irene will be the first hurricane to make landfall in the U.S. mainland since Hurricane Ike strutted into Galveston, Texas in 2008.

But how likely is that?

The answer right now is... it's hard to say. While earlier forecasts had a ridge of high pressure pushing the cyclone within slapping distance of Florida, the National Hurricane Center has tweaked its estimate of the storm track eastward. But speculating about whether Florida will be bushwhacked by this baby would be premature. As the NHC points out, predictions for hurricanes made four and five days out have had errors in tracks between 200 to 250 miles over the past five years, respectively.

So take Ryan's advice here: Don't immediately cancel your weekend beach plans, but do stay up to date with the latest hurricane watches and warnings. Or if you're the anxious type, check ABC7's Hurricane Alley satellite loop every 10 to 15 minutes while biting your nails.

And here's a bit of geeky hurricane trivia from the folks who predicted this weekend that Tropical Storm Irene would develop into a hurricane. Those thunderous cloudtops resting at 9 miles above the earth's surface? There's an interesting story behind these so-called "hot towers," as NASA explains:

Those "hot towers" are called "hot" because they rise to such altitude due to the large amount of latent heat. Water vapor releases this latent heat as it condenses into liquid.

Back in 2004, researchers Owen Kelley and John Stout of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., found that a tropical cyclone with a hot tower in its eyewall was twice as likely to intensify within the next six hours than a cyclone that lacked a tower. Irene had those hot towers and did intensify into a hurricane.

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