I think it’s safe to say that I am joined by a substantial part of the Southeast and Midwest in bidding a very loud “GOOD RIDDANCE” to the 2011 spring severe weather season, even as a student meteorologist. This season took a toll on me in a way that I honestly did not expect. It is painful to watch such atmospheric carnage unfold when the career you have embarked upon, whether as a forecaster or a research scientist, is intended to minimize such tragedies. Even when it is fairly universally recognized that the disaster was not in any way the fault of meteorologists, that only leaves a sense of helplessness. So yes, I am quite ready to say “good riddance” to the tornadoes, at least in this particular corner of the world, for a few months. The Southeast, along with much of the rest of the East, is embroiled in a heat wave at the moment, a fairly sure sign that a summer pattern has taken hold. On that cue, enter hurricane season. Hurricanes were my first atmospheric “love” and even the season of 2005 did not change this for me. It is with a sense of excitement that I start opening up my tropical web browser bookmarks regularly again.
I don’t see a lot of point in making a specific numerical forecast for this year’s hurricane season. Suffice it to say that my best guesses that I formed in winter are unchanged, and that I expect an active season with a higher-than-average chance of American strikes, unlike last season. I am not expecting a transition to El Niño, which would tamp down activity in the Atlantic, but I am not entirely sold on the expectation that the ENSO state will remain neutral throughout the season. I think there are close to even odds that it will begin to return to La Niña conditions again by autumn, albeit milder than those of last winter. However, either pattern will promote tropical activity.
Did I mention checking tropics-related web bookmarks once more? Well, it turns out that the Atlantic basin is following the “official” calendar right on schedule, so I have reason to look at the tropics regularly already. There is a disturbance in the Caribbean Sea that is the first really interesting possibility for tropical development.
Here is an image of how this disturbance looked at 11:00 PM Thursday night:
For reference, here is a true visible satellite image of the same disturbance a few hours earlier, which shows the mid- to low-level circulation of this system better:
There are two “blobs” in the Caribbean, but the first image makes it clear that the one to watch is the one closer to Central America. That is the one that, according to loops of visible satellite images, has visible rotation occurring, and it is analyzed as a low pressure center in official maps:
The area of convection to its east is associated with a tropical wave that is expected to merge with the low, adding energy and moisture to the brew.
This system is interesting for so early in the season because it has some atmospheric variables in its favor despite the calendar. The low has been developing low-level convergence (winds drawing together) and upper-level divergence, both of which are conducive for tropical cyclogenesis, though these areas of convergence and divergence need to become better aligned with each other:
As the images indicate, the area of convergence is the chief culprit in the misalignment. The divergence is occurring above the area of convection, indicating that the low is developing a system for ventilating itself.
An analysis of vorticity shows that the system has positive vorticity at the 850 and 700 mb levels and that the two levels are basically aligned, which in a tropical cyclone (or proto-cyclone) is positive for development:
850 mb vorticity
700 mb vorticity
Shear is all right above the system but not especially favorable in the surrounding environment:
This is no surprise for this early in the season, but the National Hurricane Center expects the environment to become more favorable for this system in the next couple of days. An examination of the GFS model indicates that they are probably correct in this expectation; though shear is expected to be prohibitive of any tropical activity in the Gulf of Mexico, it is supposed to lighten up around the low pressure center.
Incidentally, the GFS doesn’t seem to do much with this cyclone other than letting it churn in place. Don’t expect a hurricane out of this! At best, I’d say it might rate a tropical depression. It is primarily an interesting feature to watch for so early in the season, a harmless storm that we tornado-weary weather folk can observe without anxiety. Tropical cyclogenesis is a fascinating, somewhat mysterious, and awe-inspiring phenomenon, and instances like this that are not the classic “Cape Verde wave in September starts to spin in the middle of the Atlantic” pattern are particularly interesting because the process of genesis for them is not cut-and-dry like the well-known central Atlantic tropical wave process is. This system may very well be a harbinger, but that remains to be seen. For now, it’s a neat feature to watch.