The storm forming in the Caribbean is expected to hit Florida as a hurricane

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Confidence is rising that a tropical weather system developing in the Caribbean will intensify into a hurricane on Monday and hit Florida around Wednesday.

The system does not yet have a name, but the National Hurricane Center said a tropical depression, the precursor to a tropical storm, formed Friday morning about 600 miles east of Jamaica. Meteorologists expect it to rapidly intensify this weekend before hitting Cuba late Monday into Tuesday and then barreling north — likely toward Florida’s west coast.

The storm could be as strong as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane as it approaches Florida from Tuesday into Wednesday, although the intensity forecast is uncertain.

As soon as early Tuesday, tropical storm conditions could begin over the Florida Keys and South Florida.

The storm has the potential to produce “significant impacts from storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall,” the Hurricane Center wrote Friday. “Residents … should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place and closely monitor forecast updates through the weekend.”

The storm could be called Hermine or Ian, depending on whether this depression or another, just west of Africa, organizes first.

It looks like this system will be the first hurricane to hit the US mainland this year, and watches are possible by the end of the weekend for parts of Florida and the Florida Keys.

Eastern Canada braces for Fiona to be ‘a storm everyone remembers’

For now, the storm is still about 72 hours away from its first landfall in Cuba. Ahead of the storm’s approach, National Weather Service offices in the central and eastern United States are launching additional weather balloons to pull in additional data to improve forecasts.

By Friday morning, the depression was about 500 miles east of Jamaica. Winds were about 35 mph, or below the 39 mph threshold needed for the system to be named a tropical storm.

An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance aircraft was dispatched Friday morning to fly into and survey the fledgling system.

In visible satellite, it is clear that all of the storm has shifted west of a low-level vortex that has become the system’s de facto center of circulation. This is due to wind shear, or a change in wind speed and/or direction with height. The easterly wind becomes stronger with height, so the system is somewhat inclined.

That displacement originates from “outflow” or ejection from Hurricane Fiona a few thousand miles to the northeast. Until that displacement relaxes on Sunday, the tropical depression will tilt out completely and will not be able to fully develop. After this, however, the conditions will become much more favorable for intensification.

This is what Hurricane Fiona’s surf looked like from the crest of a 50-foot wave

On Sunday, shear abutting the tropical depression will weaken significantly. At the same time, the system will slide under a zone of clockwise spinning high pressure. It will help evacuate air away from the center of the system at high attitudes, enhancing upward motion within the developing storm and promoting further strengthening. It also means that more moisture-rich air in contact with the sea surface will be able to penetrate the storm from below.

The waters of the northwestern Caribbean are very warm, filled with thermal energy to fuel potentially explosive reinforcement. That could easily help the system intensify into a Category 2 or stronger hurricane before it hits Cuba. At this time, the National Hurricane Center is predicting landfall early Tuesday west of Havana.

Before reaching Cuba, the storm is expected to pass just south and then west of Jamaica, where four to eight inches of rain could fall and trigger flash floods and mudslides.

As the storm crosses Cuba on Tuesday, some weakening is likely before the storm curves northeast over the warm waters of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where it should regain some strength.

While the Gulf is extremely warm, its possible somewhat dry air and wind shear in the storm’s vicinity may limit storm intensification. Still, the Hurricane Center expects the storm to be a Category 3 hurricane Wednesday morning while centered very near Florida’s west coast.

It is too early to say exactly where along Florida’s coast the storm may hit. It’s still five days away, and track forecasts that far in advance have big errors. There is still an outside chance that the storm track will shift to the west, more towards the central gulf or towards the southern tip of Florida or even offshore to the east of the peninsula.

After the storm potentially hits Florida, it could move up the eastern seaboard or just offshore, affecting coastal areas in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and even Northeast later this week. But there is much lower confidence in the forecast after Wednesday.

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