Karen Forms in Southern Gulf

Watches Issued for Portions of Gulf Coast; Storm Already Has 60 MPH Winds

Almost 18 years to the day, a storm has formed in the Gulf of Mexico, and could deliver a blow to the Northeastern Gulf Coast. Within the past few minutes, the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida has classified the disturbance in the Southeastern Gulf as Tropical Storm Karen. The storm already has maximum sustained winds of 60 miles per hour with gusts up to 70 mph, and a minimum central pressure of 1004 millibars, or 29.65 inches of Hg.

Currently, Karen is located some 500 miles south of the Mouth of the Mississippi River, and the storm is moving to the North-Northwest at 13 miles per hour. Hurricane Hunter aircraft has been flying in and around the storm since yesterday, and finally detected a closed circulation just to the north of the Northern Yucatan coast. The storm is a lopsided or asymmetrical system with the bulk, if not all of its convection, to the east of the center of circulation. However, high pressure aloft has developed over the storm, and sea surface temperatures in this region are always very warm. So, further strengthening is not out of the question. There is some discrepancy though on how strong Karen will become and where it will go.

The reason for the disagreement between the various forecast models such as the European and the GFS is because there is dry air pushing into the Western Gulf to the west of the storm. The models are in general agreement that Karen will move around the periphery of a mid-level ridge ahead of a mid-level trough. But they differ on the exact track into the Gulf Coast. The European has Karen going further west into Louisiana and Southern Mississippi while the GFS has the storm taking a more easterly track into Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The discrepancy in these tracks has an impact on how strong Karen will be at landfall.

With the European model’s more western track, Karen moves into the drier air moving into the Western Gulf, and comes ashore on Saturday as a minimal tropical storm or depression. On the other hand, the GFS’ more eastern track has the storm over more moist air in place in the Eastern Gulf, and as a result, Karen is a much stronger storm. As a result of this discrepancy in the models, the GFS has put Karen as a minimal hurricane within 36 hours, and has posted both hurricane and tropical storm watches for the Gulf coast. This could be a dangerous situation developing in the Gulf. We could have a scenario very similar to Hurricane Opal in 1995.

Opal formed further west in the Bay of Campeche before rapidly developing into a high end Category Four Hurricane, and picking up forward speed before crashing into the Florida Panhandle on October 5th. Another similarity between Opal in 1995 and this storm is that the country is distracted with other news headlines. Back in 1995, the country was gripped with the suspense of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial while this time, the nation is dealing with a federal government shutdown that has even closed down some NOAA web sites. The NHC and NWS are not affected by the shutdown since they both help protect life and property.

Karen is aiming at a portion of the Gulf Coast that has finally recovered from the impacts of Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Dennis in 2005. So, a significantly stronger storm for this region later in the weekend would not be ideal. Up to this point in the season, there have been 11 depressions and 11 named storms, but only two hurricanes and no major hurricanes. Could that change with Karen. It is very possible that this storm could become the season’s third hurricane, but can it become the first major hurricane of 2013. Too early to tell.