Tropical Storm Nate is forming and may strike U.S. Gulf Coast as hurricane Sunday

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The 16th tropical depression of the Atlantic hurricane season is likely to become the season’s 14th named storm, called Nate. (CIRA/RAMMB/NOAA)

A festering mass of thunderstorms in the southwestern Caribbean has gradually become better organized and was declared the 16th tropical depression of Atlantic hurricane season Wednesday morning by the National Hurricane Center. The depression is likely to become the season’s 14th named storm, called Nate, very soon.

The depression could strengthen substantially over the coming days and make landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast between Louisiana and Florida’s west coast late Sunday as a hurricane. New Orleans, Mobile, Ala., Pensacola, Fla., Apalachicola, Fla., and even Tampa are among population centers the system could directly impact.

“The system is forecast to continue strengthening over the Gulf of Mexico and could affect portions of the northern Gulf Coast as a hurricane this weekend, with direct impacts from wind, storm surge, and heavy rainfall,” the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday. “However, it is too early to specify the timing or magnitude of these impacts.”

(National Hurricane Center)

Currently centered east of Nicaragua, the depression is expected to drift northwestward near the coastline of Nicaragua and Honduras Thursday, where tropical storm warnings are in effect. Rainfall totals of 15 to 20 inches, with locally higher amounts, are predicted in parts of Nicaragua.

On Friday, computer models forecast it to pass over the Yucatán Peninsula, near Cancun, or just to the east through the Yucatán Channel (between the Yucatán Peninsula and Cuba). It should reach the Gulf of Mexico by late Friday, and pick up speed as it moves northward or northeastward Saturday. By Sunday, it is likely to be bearing down on the Gulf Coast.

Because the system may interact some with land, including Nicaragua and Honduras, and then perhaps the Yucatán Peninsula, the intensity forecast is very difficult. However, there is some potential for it to intensify rapidly.

The sea surface temperatures, which serve as fuel for tropical weather systems, are very high from the southwest Caribbean to the Yucatán Channel and into northeastern Gulf of Mexico — generally 0.5 to 2 degrees above normal.

Furthermore, ocean heat content, a measure of the depth of warm water, is also very high in this region — the highest of any part of the Atlantic Ocean basin.

Vertical wind shear, which can disrupt storm development, is not high — another factor in the system’s favor.

Given all of these factors, it is almost a given that this will become a tropical storm; the question is where the ceiling lies for its strength.

“Rapid intensification is a possibility over the northwestern Caribbean or southern Gulf of Mexico while the system is traversing rather warm and deep waters, although it remains to be seen how separate the depression becomes from a larger gyre over central America,” the National Hurricane Center said Wednesday.

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