Please follow this closely, this looks to be a major impact on the US east Coast
Hurricane Irene strengthened into the season's first Atlantic hurricane at 5am EDT this morning as the eye moved over San Juan, Puerto Rico, and crossed into the ocean just north of the island. Overnight, Irene held its own as the eye passed over the most mountainous portion of Puerto Rico, the El Yunque region. Winds in the higher mountains likely reached Category 2 strength, 96 - 110 mph, according to measurements from the San Juan Terminal Doppler Radar, and the hurricane pounded the island with damaging winds and flooding rains, resulting in widespread tree damage and power failures that hit 800,000 people. The San Juan Airport recorded top winds of 41 mph, gusting to 55 mph, and 2.87" of rain, as of 9am AST. Tropical storm conditions affected the Virgin Islands, with St. Thomas recording sustained winds of 40 mph, gusting to 67 mph, and 4.03" of rain as of 6am AST today. At 7am EDT, the ship Horizon Trader measured sustained northeast winds of 69 mph and wave heights of 11.5 feet at 19°N, in the northern eyewall of Irene. Latest observations from an Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft indicate that Irene is slowly intensifying, with a central pressure of 989 mb observed at 9:42am EDT. The eyewall is not fully formed yet, with a gap on the south side. This gap will need to close off before the hurricane can undergo rapid intensification.
Track forecast for Irene
The computer models show good agreement that Irene will pass along the north coast of Hispaniola today, but just a slight wobble in Irene's track to take it farther offshore--or push it onshore, over the mountains--will have major impacts on the ultimate path and strength of the hurricane. A trough of low pressure is expected to move across the Eastern U.S. on Wednesday and Thursday, turning Irene more to the northwest by Wednesday. The timing and strength of this trough varies considerably from model to model, and will be critical in determining where and when Irene will turn to the north. Irene's strength will also matter--a stronger Irene is more likely to turn northward earlier. The most popular solution among the models is to take Irene to the northwest through the Bahamas on Wednesday and Thursday, then into the Southeast U.S. coast in South Carolina or North Carolina on Saturday. Irene would then travel up the mid-Atlantic coast, arriving near Long Island, New York on Monday morning as a strong tropical storm or Category 1 hurricane. One of the models proposing this solution is our best model, the ECMWF. However, we have two other of our very good models suggesting a landfall near Miami on Thursday night is likely (the GFDL and UKMET models.) NHC forecaster Stacy Stewart gave some good reasons in this morning's discussion to favor a track close to the east coast of Florida, but just offshore. Last years' worst performing major the model, the NOGAPS, predicts that Irene will pass out to sea, missing the Southeast U.S. coast. Keep in mind that the average error of a 4-day forecast from NHC is 200 miles, and just a small deviation in the path of a storm moving roughly parallel to the coast will make a huge difference in where it ultimately makes landfall. The NOAA jet will be flying its first dropsonde mission into Irene today, which should result in a more reliable set of model runs first thing Tuesday morning.
Intensity forecast for Irene
Irene is embedded in a large envelope of moisture now, and wind shear is expected to remain low, 5 - 10 knots, for the next five days. With water temperatures very warm, 29 - 30°C, these conditions should allow for intensification except when land is interfering. Satellite loops show that Irene is steadily growing in size, which will protect the storm against major disruption by its passage along the north shore of Hispaniola today. The storm is lacking much development on its southwest side, where dry air is interfering with development. This dry air may help keep southern portions of the Dominican Republic and Haiti from receiving more than 3 - 6 inches of rain. There is at least a 30% chance that passage of the eye over Hispaniola will reduce Irene to a tropical storm tonight and into Tuesday. Due to Hispaniola blocking inflow of moist air from the south, Irene will likely compensate by building an even larger region of heavy thunderstorms to the north, offshore. Thus, when Irene's center finally moves well away from the coast on Tuesday, it will be a bigger storm, with the potential to spread hurricane conditions over a wider area later in the week when it intensifies. One limiting factor for intensification may be in the upper-level outflow pattern. The hurricane is lifting a huge amount of air from the surface to the upper atmosphere, and all that mass has to be efficiently transported away in order for the hurricane to intensify. Right now, upper level outflow is only well-established to the north and east, and the forecast outflow pattern for the coming five days is only moderately favorable. Overall, I think the official NHC forecast of a Category 3 hurricane by Thursday is the right one, though Irene could easily be a Category 2 or Category 4 storm.
Irene's impact on the Dominican Republic
Heavy rains from Irene have already reached the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, where Punta Cana has seen wind gusts up to 29 mph this morning. The northeast coast of the country near Samana will receive the worst of Irene's wrath, with sustained winds of 50 - 70 mph and gusts above hurricane force likely to cause widespread tree damage and power outages today. Passage along the coast of the island may weaken Irene to a tropical storm by Tuesday morning, and wind damage in Puerto Plata may be less severe than at Samana. The capital of Santo Domingo will see lesser winds, perhaps 30 - 50 mph, with gusts to 60 mph. The main danger to the Dominican Republic will be Irene's torrential rains, which are likely to reach 20 inches in some mountainous regions, causing dangerous flash floods and mudslides.
Irene's impact on Haiti
No nation in the Caribbean is more vulnerable to hurricanes than Haiti, whose northern reaches are expected to receive torrential rains of 5 - 10 inches from Irene. During the 2008 hurricane season, four storms--Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike--dumped heavy rains on Haiti, leaving over 1,000 people dead or missing. The path and intensity of Hurricane Irene are very similar to that of Hurricane Jeanne of 2004, which dumped 13 inches of rains on the nation's northern mountains. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation, let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country, killing over 3000 people, mostly in the town of Gonaives, the nation's 4th largest city. Jeanne ranks as the 12th deadliest hurricane of all time on the list of the 30 most deadly Atlantic hurricanes, and Irene's rains are capable of causing a similar disaster. During 2004 and again this year, ocean temperatures off the coast of Haiti were 1 - 1.5°C above average, one of the top five values seen in the past 100 years. Since more water vapor evaporates into the air from record warm waters, the potential for devastating floods from hurricanes is much higher in these situations. However, satellite images of Jeanne show the storm had much more moisture on its south side when it hit Hispaniola than Irene currently has, so I am hopeful that Irene's rains will not be as intense as Jeanne's were.