A large and vigorous tropical wave in the eastern Caribbean, designated Potential Tropical Cyclone Nine (PTC 9) by NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, was spreading heavy rain showers on Wednesday over much of the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, as seen on long-range radar out of Puerto Rico and Martinique.
Rainfall amounts in the islands as of 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday were mostly less than an inch, though a personal weather station on Dominica received 3.13″ in 24 hours.
As of that time, PTC 9 had top sustained winds near 45 mph and a central pressure of 1006 mb, and was headed west-northwest at 23 mph. PTC 9 is predicted to bring tropical storm conditions with heavy rains of 3 – 6 inches to the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, northern Haiti, and Turks and Caicos Islands over the next few days. Higher rainfall amounts of 4 – 8 inches were predicted for the Inagua Islands.
An Air Force hurricane hunter aircraft investigating the storm Wednesday morning was unable to find a well-defined surface circulation, so PTC 9 retained its ungainly moniker. Satellite images on Wednesday showed that PTC 9 was steadily growing more organized, with more low-level spiral bands and an area of intense thunderstorms consolidating near what appeared to be a developing surface circulation center. The storm is also expected to slow down in forward speed through Thursday, favoring development and making it likely that PTC 9 will be named “Isaias” (pronounced ees-ah-EE-ahs) by Wednesday night. If so, that would beat the record for earliest ninth storm in Atlantic tropical cyclone history set by Irene on August 7, 2005.
PTC 9 had favorable conditions for development on Wednesday afternoon, with sea surface temperatures (SSTs) near 29 degrees Celsius (84°F) and light wind shear of 5 – 10 knots. The system was embedded in a moderately dry atmosphere with a mid-level relative humidity of 55%, but the light wind shear to a large extent was allowing the storm to wall off the dry air of the Saharan Air Layer to its north.
Forecast for PTC 9
The prospects that PTC 9 eventually will attain hurricane strength look dimmer than they did on Tuesday, but the uncertainty in the future of the storm remains very high until it forms a well-defined center and gets named.
As PTC 9 moves west-northwestward, it will have to contend with passage over Hispaniola on Thursday, and the mountainous terrain on the island could significantly disrupt PTC 9’s circulation. Passage close to the mountainous terrain of eastern Cuba on Friday may also act to disrupt the storm. In addition, PTC 9 will also have to contend with dry air from the Saharan Air Layer, located to the north. The 12Z Wednesday run of the SHIPS model predicted that the atmosphere surrounding PTC 9 would slowly dry to a relative humidity of 45% by Thursday evening. The model also predicted that wind shear would rise to a moderately high 15 – 25 knots on Thursday through Saturday, which should retard development.
However, SSTs for PTC 9 will warm to 30 degrees Celsius (86°F) by Saturday, which will aid the intensification process. Also favoring intensification will be a large-scale region of ascending air over the Atlantic, caused by passage of an atmospheric disturbance called a Convectively Coupled Kelvin Wave.
The 11 a.m. EDT Wednesday National Hurricane Center (NHC) intensity forecast called for PTC 9 to remain below hurricane strength, peaking with 60 mph winds this weekend. Nearly all of the top intensity models also predicted that PTC 9 would not become a hurricane.
The three best models for predicting tropical cyclone genesis – the European, GFS, and UKMET models – all support intensification of PTC 9 into a tropical storm by Thursday, July 30. In an 8 a.m. EDT Wednesday Tropical Weather Outlook, NHC gave PTC 9 two-day and five-day odds of formation of 90%.
PTC 9’s rains beneficial for drought-stricken Caribbean islands
Many of the Caribbean islands in the path of PTC 9 will welcome its heavy rains, since they will help alleviate moderate to severe drought conditions from an unusually dry spring and first half of summer.
Climate change is likely partly to blame for the drought, as explained in a 2018 study, Exacerbation of the 2013–2016 Pan‐Caribbean Drought by Anthropogenic Warming. The authors of that research found that human‐caused warming contributed to 15 – 17% of the severity of the intense 2013 – 16 drought in the Caribbean, and 7% of its spatial extent. The findings “strongly suggest that climate model projected anthropogenic drying in the Caribbean is already underway, with major implications for the more than 43 million people currently living in this region,” they concluded.
This year’s drought is particularly acute in Puerto Rico, where over half of the island was in drought on July 23, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor product. The governor declared a state of emergency in late June and ordered water rationing, subjecting residents in affected areas to 24-hour water shutoffs every other day. Loss of running water makes living through a pandemic deadlier, since residents are unable to wash hands, bathe, and disinfect surfaces as often as needed to avoid spread of the coronavirus.
According to Princeton’s Latin American Flood and Drought Monitor, the Dominican Republic is experiencing the worst drought in the Caribbean. To illustrate, rainfall amounts between June 15 and July 27 at Barahona, on the southwest coast of the Dominican Republic, were just 0.09″ (2.2 mm). The capital, Santo Domingo, received 0.44″ (11.3 mm) during the same period. Haiti is also under severe drought, putting much of the nation into a food crisis, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.