Joaquin intensifies; East Coast awaits possible landfall

According to The Weather Channel, Hurricane Joaquin strengthened to major hurricane status as a Category 3 storm Wednesday night, and is now hammering the central Bahamas. Prospects remain worrisome for the U.S. mainland as the official forecast continues with a chance of the East Coast seeing its first landfalling hurricane in 15 months.

An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance aircraft flying through Hurricane Joaquin Wednesday night found winds near the center had become much stronger, prompting the agency to raise the wind figure to 105 mph in the 8 p.m. advisory and 120 mph at 2 a.m. Thursday. The latter makes Joaquin a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.

Equipment on the plane measured surface winds as high as 130 mph in gusts within powerful thunderstorms in the developing eyewall in the still-growing tropical cyclone.

With Joaquin’s winds strengthening by a factor of 30 mph within a 24-hour period on Wednesday, rapid intensification criteria has been met. Further strengthening is expected Thursday.

Hurricane Joaquin continues to intensify as wind shear – harmful to the intensification of tropical cyclones – lessens, and a complicated atmospheric pattern makes its future track – including any potential landfall on the U.S. East Coast – extremely difficult to forecast.

Residents along the East Coast of the U.S. should pay close attention to the forecast now through this weekend. It’s a particularly difficult forecast that hinges on the behavior of several different atmospheric features over North America and the North Atlantic Ocean.

Computer forecast models – and the meteorologists who use them for guidance – are grappling with a complex interaction between Joaquin, a cold front near the East Coast, the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida, a strong bubble of high pressure aloft over the North Atlantic Ocean, and a potentially strong area of low pressure aloft digging into the southeastern U.S. later this week.

Complicating the forecast is the fact a more reliable forecast model keeps Joaquin appreciably away from the East Coast.

Furthermore, overnight Wednesday night, another pair of somewhat less reliable forecast models moved their tracks farther east, still affecting the U.S. East Coast, but, again, farther east than previous forecast model runs. NOAA Gulfstream aircraft surveillance missions and extra balloon soundings launched from National Weather Service offices on the mainland may have contributed to the eastward shift in some of the model guidance overnight Wednesday night.

Despite all that, there still remains considerable uncertainty in Joaquin’s future track, and, thus, its potential impact on the U.S. this weekend.

The National Hurricane Center says hurricane watches may have to be issued for parts of the East Coast as soon as tonight.