Dorian intensifies into a hurricane, may hit U.S. as a powerful cyclone


Dorian is expected to pick up steam.

National Hurricane Center meteorologists have forecast the newly-designated hurricane, now carrying 75 mph maximum winds as of 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, to intensify over the next four days into a major Category 3 hurricane packing 115 mph winds. A favorable mix of very warm ocean waters and the right atmospheric conditions may allow Dorian to strengthen as it churns northwest, directly into the Florida coast, or nearby.

“All indications are that by this Labor Day weekend, a powerful hurricane will be near the Florida or southeastern coast of the United States,” the National Hurricane Center said in a forecast discussion Wednesday morning.

(Puerto Rico, still recovering from 2017’s Hurricane Maria, is expected to experience damaging winds and heavy rains Wednesday, though not the more extreme conditions forecasted for the mainland).

Dorian will hit the southeast just before the onset of the peak Atlantic hurricane season, which starts around Labor Day. The broad direction of the storm is now clear, but Dorian’s precise track will change.

“There are aways changes,” said Brian Tang, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany.

“No matter where you live along the U.S. southeast coast, and into the Gulf of Mexico, this is a storm to pay attention to,” Tang added. “Labor Day weekend is coming up and a lot of people are traveling.”

The cyclone will almost certainly impact people living along the southeast’s well-populated coastlines — and surging water will get an added boost from high, king tides, wherever the storm ultimately lands. “It’s not ideal for somebody,” said Hugh Willoughby, a hurricane scientist at Florida International University.

Dorian is expected to feed off of a number of favorable hurricane ingredients.

For one, Atlantic waters are now well above average temperatures, explained Willoughby. Hurricanes thrive on warm, bathtub-like temperatures. The storms soak up heat from the ocean surface, providing the cyclones fuel to intensify.

In fact, a pool of “very warm” sea surface temperatures near the Bahamas has given Dorian the potential to become a major Category 3 storm, said Jeff Weber, a meteorologist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Warm waters can, and have, supercharged recent, major hurricanes. Research has shown remarkably warm waters have outweighed other factors in allowing recent cyclones to strengthen into powerful hurricanes. The overall oceans — which absorb more than 90 percent of the heat generated by human activities — are now continually warming.

But other potent factors drive major storms, too.

Critically, for Dorian, there are no opposing winds, known as wind shear, to rip apart the cyclone. It can now grow into a more organized and powerful system. “The shear environment is very weak,” said Weber. “The storm is not being torn apart.”

What’s more, in Dorian’s short life, the storm has been surrounded by regions of dry air, which makes it difficult for the thunderstorms at Dorian’s core to establish themselves. To strengthen, cyclones need to suck in moist air, which then condenses and releases heat, allowing towering, energetic storms to form at the storm’s core. “It’s the engine it needs to intensify,” explained Tang.

But as Dorian travels north in the coming days, it will leave this drier air and thrive on moist atmospheric conditions.

The storm’s direction is largely influenced by a “dome” or region of high pressure in the Atlantic, called the Bermuda High, which “acts like a great wall,” explained Weber. This atmospheric wall is expected to push the storm west, directly into the U.S. coast.

“It does look like this high will steer the storm into the Florida or Georgia coast,” said Weber.

Some residents are already preparing. Willoughby’s wife has staged their living room with copious amounts of bottled water — just in case. A veteran hurricane scientist, Willoughby is finally growing weary of the damaging cyclones, which either threaten or pummel the U.S. coast every August and September. And over the last half-century, there’s evidence that these storms have increasingly slowed down, which means more rain.

“I used to enjoy hurricanes,” he said.

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