MIAMI — Hurricane Danielle became the season's strongest storm to date on Friday, hitting Category 4 strength. Tropical Storm Earl was fast on the way to turning into a hurricane. Another disturbance in their wake could become a tropical storm named Fiona within days.
With three named storms potentially whirling in the Atlantic Ocean by this weekend, the message to procrastinators should be clear. Might be a smart time to stock up on supplies.
That doesn't mean South Florida faces an imminent threat, but a hurricane season that forecasters had predicted would be busy is quickly living up to the advance billing.
Danielle, a formidable 135-mph force about 1,200 miles east of Fort Lauderdale on Friday afternoon, had already began curving out to sea and was expected to pass well east of Bermuda sometime Saturday night. The National Hurricane Center's five-day forecast also predicted Earl would begin a similar turn as a trough of low pressure pushes in off the East Coast.
But forecasters nudged the projected path of Earl, barreling along at 20 mph, further west, reflected by tropical storm warnings posted at 5 p.m. for the northernmost Leeward Islands of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy. If it holds to that prediction, Earl would become a hurricane by Sunday, and be somewhere southwest of Bermuda on Wednesday -- considerably closer to the East Coast than Danielle.
Beyond five days, the picture isn't so clear for Earl or whatever might be on its heels, said James Franklin, chief of hurricane specialists at the center in West Miami-Dade.
``As we get closer to days six, seven and eight, we will need to see if that trough is as strong as we think it is,'' he said. ``That's the uncertainty that always exists.''
Most computer models show both Earl and the major disturbance tracking behind it curving out to sea sometime late next week. However, Franklin cautioned the models can change dramatically from day to day. Hurricane experts warn against placing too much stock in the long-range models.
``If you make a habit of looking at those, you'll see they're not very stable,'' he said.
While the center has dramatically improved forecasts over the years, even its official tracks -- which reflect a combination of models and forecasters' expertise -- have a margin of error that averages about 50 miles for each day, Franklin said. That means the five-day forecast might be off by as much as 250 miles -- about the distance between Miami and Orlando.
Beyond the strength of the trough, Danielle's fate also could influence Earl's track, Franklin said. If Danielle zips away, it could allow high pressure to build in behind it, pushing Earl more westerly.
``There are all kinds of interactions that can occur. Storms are generally passengers in the scheme of things,'' he said, driven by the larger atmospheric forces around them.
There have been seasons when large-scale patterns have blocked most storms from the East Coast, he said, but ``the problem is, we can't count on them to persist. Even if there is a breakdown for two or three days, that might be enough.''
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