Iota satellite image
GeoColor satellite image of Hurricane Iota at 12:50 p.m. EST Monday, November 16. (Image credit: RAMMB/CIRA/Colorado State University)

Hurricane Iota explosively intensified into a category 5 hurricane overnight, becoming the latest category 5 storm ever observed in the Atlantic. Iota is predicted to make landfall in northern Nicaragua on Monday night at or just below category 5 strength, bringing catastrophic winds and a storm surge of 15-20 feet to northern Nicaragua.

Catastrophic rains of 10-20 inches, with isolated amounts of up to 30 inches, will affect a large region of Central America, with northern portions of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala at highest risk of devastating flooding. These are the same regions still recovering from catastrophic Hurricane Eta, which hit northern Nicaragua as a category 4 storm with 140 mph winds on November 3.

Iota is likely to make landfall within 50 miles of where Hurricane Eta made landfall. There is no historical precedent for two Atlantic hurricanes of at least category 4 strength hitting the same location just two weeks apart. That this may occur in November, when major hurricanes are rare, is particularly extraordinary. The closest analogue may be in September 2017, when Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both at category 5 strength, affected the Virgin Islands two weeks apart. However, Maria did not make a direct landfall in the Virgin Islands, passing about 75 miles to the southwest of Irma’s path.

If there is a bright side to this tragedy, it is that Iota will be hitting one of the most sparsely populated areas of the Central American coast. Nicaragua proved it could successfully evacuate its vulnerable population before Eta hit the same region two weeks ago, and the official death toll in the nation from Eta totaled two people. As Iota’s most extreme winds and storm surge will be affecting some of the same regions most severely affected by Eta, Iota is not considered likely to cause a great deal of additional damage, as these regions were already mostly destroyed.

Sam Lillo tweet

Unprecedented onslaught of late-season hurricanes

The “Greek” storms have given 2020 an unprecedented series of late-season rapidly intensifying hurricanes (See Tweet by Sam Lillo). Iota is just the second Atlantic category 5 hurricane recorded in November in the Atlantic, the other being the 1932 Cuba hurricane, at category 5 strength from November 5-8, 1932.

Iota is the second major hurricane this November, along with Hurricane Eta, which peaked as a category 4 storm with 150 mph winds early in November. Eta and now Iota make 2020 the first Atlantic hurricane season to record two major hurricanes in November.

Iota is the tenth 2020 Atlantic named storm to rapidly intensify by at least 35 mph in 24 hours. According to statistics compiled by Tomer Berg, 2020 therefore ties a record set in 1995 for most rapidly intensifying Atlantic storms in a single year (using statistics going back to 1979).

Furthermore, Iota gives the Atlantic five consecutive years with a category 5 hurricane. Matthew (2016), Irma and Maria (2017), Michael (2018), and Lorenzo and Dorian (2019), were the others. This is the first time on record that the Atlantic has experienced category 5 hurricanes in five consecutive years.

Iota gives Colombia’s Providencia Island a tremendous pounding

Between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. Monday morning, the southern eyewall of Iota passed over Colombia’s Providencia Island (population 5,000). An Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft about two hours later measured sustained category 5 winds of 160 mph in the southern eyewall of Iota, but these winds may have been just north of the island. Wind damage on Providencia was likely devastating, and possibly catastrophic.

Iota on course for a Monday night landfall in Nicaragua

At 1 p.m. EST Monday, Iota was 80 miles east-southeast of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, headed west at 9 mph. Iota at that point was a low-end category 5 hurricane with top winds of 160 mph, and a central pressure of 918 mb.

Satellite imagery early Monday afternoon showed Iota to be a very impressive hurricane with an eye surrounded by a solid eyewall with heavy thunderstorms having very cold cloud tops. Upper-level outflow was good to excellent in all quadrants, and the outer spiral bands of Iota were lashing northeastern Nicaragua and Honduras.

Track forecast for Iota

The track forecast for Iota is straightforward. A ridge of high pressure to Iota’s north will force the hurricane on a westerly to west-northwesterly track at 7-10 mph until landfall occurs in northern Nicaragua on Monday night near midnight. Predictions then call for steering currents to shift, putting Iota on a more westerly to west-southwesterly path deep into Central America. Dissipation is expected to occur about two days after landfall, when Iota will be over El Salvador, near the Pacific coast. Iota is not expected to regenerate over the Pacific Ocean.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Predicted wind speed (colors) and sea level pressure (black lines) for Iota at 10 p.m. EST Monday, November 16, from the 7 a.m. (12Z) Monday, November 16, run of the HWRF model. The model predicted Iota would be approaching landfall in northern Nicaragua, very close to the landfall location of Hurricane Eta nearly two weeks ago, as a high-end category 4 hurricane with 145 mph winds and a central pressure of 924 mb. (Image credit: Tropical Tidbits)

Intensity forecast for Iota

The National Hurricane Center in its 10 a.m. EST Monday intensity forecast called for Iota to intensify until landfall, peaking as a category 5 hurricane with 165 mph winds. Conditions will be favorable for development through landfall, with the SHIPS model predicting moderate wind shear near 10 knots, warm sea surface temperatures of 28.5-29 degrees Celsius (83-84°F), and a moist atmosphere with a mid-level relative humidity of 70%. Data from the Hurricane Hunters on Monday showed no signs of concentric eyewalls, so an eyewall replacement cycle – the process common in intense hurricanes where the inner eyewall shrinks, grows unstable, and collapses, resulting in a weakening of 10-20 mph in the winds of the storm – does not appear imminent.

Nicaragua previously has been hit only twice by category 5 hurricanes: Hurricane Edith (1971) and Hurricane Felix (2007).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Predicted five-day rainfall ending at 1 a.m. EST Saturday, November 21, from the 1 a.m. EST Monday, November 16, run of the GFS model. The model predicted that Iota would dump widespread rainfall amounts in excess of five inches (orange colors) to much of the Caribbean, with over 20 inches (pink colors) falling in northern Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. (Image credit: NOAA/AOML)

Tropical Storm Kappa may affect Central America late this week

Recent runs of the GFS and European model have been consistently predicting that an area of low pressure capable of developing into a tropical storm will form late this week over the southwestern Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Costa Rica. Conditions for development will be favorable, with moderate wind shear of 10 – 20 knots, warm sea surface temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius (84°F), and a moist atmosphere. Steering currents favor a westerly to west-southwesterly motion at 5-10 mph, putting Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua at greatest risk of experiencing a landfall.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Predicted surface wind speed in knots (colors) and wind direction (grey lines) at 7 p.m. EST Friday, November 20, from the 7 a.m. (12Z) Monday, November 16, run of the GFS model. The model predicted Tropical Storm Kappa would be approaching landfall near the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border as a tropical storm with 55-60 knot (60-65 mph) winds. (Image credit:

None of the 51 members of the 0Z Monday run of the European model ensemble and fewer than 20% of the 31 members of the 6Z GFS model ensemble members, predicted a more northerly track, with a threat to northern Nicaragua. In multiple recent runs, the GFS model has been predicting that this disturbance will develop into a tropical storm by Friday, make landfall as a tropical storm near the Costa Rica/Nicaragua border on Saturday, then cross into the Eastern Pacific Ocean and reorganize, bringing heavy rains to the Pacific coast of Central America early next week. The next name on the Atlantic list of storms is Kappa, the 10th letter of the Greek alphabet. The storm would likely keep the name Kappa after crossing into the Northeast Pacific and reorganizing into a tropical storm (if it were still identifiably the same cyclone).

Also see: Climate change is causing more rapid intensification of Atlantic hurricanes

If Kappa does form as the GFS model has been predicting, the storm is unlikely to have sufficient time over water to develop into a hurricane, and it would be a relatively small tropical storm. However, Kappa would be a significant heavy rain threat for southern Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, with 5-10 inches of rain possible Friday through Sunday. As of Monday afternoon EST, it does not appear that this potential future storm would be a heavy rain threat for the areas of northern Nicaragua and Honduras facing devastation from Hurricane Iota, although broader easterly flow across the region may continue to keep intermittent rains over the Iota-affected region for a number of days.

In a 1 p.m. EST Monday tropical weather outlook, NHC gave 2-day and 5-days odds of development of 0% and 40%, respectively, to this future disturbance. Given the way the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season has unfolded, the 5-day odds should probably be hiked up to 60%.

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Posted on November 16, 2020(2:21pm EST).

Jeff Masters, Ph.D., worked as a hurricane scientist with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990. After a near-fatal flight into category 5 Hurricane Hugo, he left the Hurricane Hunters to pursue a...

23 replies on “Category 5 Hurricane Iota on track to bring catastrophic winds, rain, storm surge to Central America”

  1. 2020 Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) (TC STATISTICS)

    · The latest 2020 ACE reading is 179.8 (as of November 17, 11 AM ET). This keeps its 13th place position from the two previous 6 hour marks for the all-time highest ACE in a season (going back to 1851). 2020 is currently behind 1878 [180.9] and ahead of 1999 [176.5]. Another 2.1 points is needed to pass 1998’s ACE of 181.8 and move 2020 into the top ten.

    · ACE for Hurricane Iota is now at 12.2, an increase of 0.6 from the 5 AM tally. Iota presently has the 7th highest ACE of 2020 – behind Laura [12.8] and ahead of Isaias [9.6].

    · In August, CSU forecast this season’s ACE to reach 200.

    · There are 8 years with an ACE of 200 or more. The highest is from 1933 at 258.6. The lowest is from 1950 at 211.3.

  2. Interesting……..But humans have been accurately recording weather data for much, much longer: People have been measuring temperature since Galileo’s time, and the modern thermometer was invented in the early 1700s. Formal weather stations, which before the mid-1800s were mostly in Europe and the US, became ubiquitous enough by 1880 to provide a robust picture of global temperature. But the vast majority of other, older climate data still isn’t digitized.
    “People don’t realize, but there’s an enormous amount of data that has never been put into digital archives,” Schmidt says.
    Millions of weather records, for example, are sitting in old weather offices and in ships’ logs around the world. Researchers are continuously crowdsourcing efforts to dig up and digitize historic weather data. In Uzbekistan, efforts to digitize 18 million pages of hydrometeorological data from as far back as 1867 are well under way. Similar efforts have begun in El SalvadorMalawi, and Tanzania.
    The British East India Company, which traveled extensively between 1789 and 1834, collected an enormous amount of weather data. Philip Brohan, a climate scientist at the UK’s Met Office, has worked to collate hundreds of thousands of those records and digitize them to be added to the pre-1880 global climate record.

    1. Wow. I try to pay attention to this kind of thing but I had no idea so many data were (more or less) available yet not digitized and, therefore, not widely available. Thanks for the informative post!

  3. Beautiful Day here today Doc...........000
    FXUS62 KTBW 171159
    Area Forecast Discussion
    National Weather Service Tampa Bay Ruskin FL
    659 AM EST Tue Nov 17 2020
    Temperatures have rather efficiently fallen overnight under clear
    skies. However, breezier winds have arrested falling temperatures
    some by keeping the air better mixed. Not surprisingly, the
    coolest spots are also the calmest ones.
    Today`s weather looks great. A cool morning will give way to a
    comfortable afternoon, with temperatures expected to only climb into
    the 70s for much of the area. Higher winds do mean that there are
    some marine concerns, and the drier air also means we are monitoring
    fire weather conditions, but otherwise today should be a near
    perfect day.
  4. Thanks, Dr Masters. I am so grateful that you and Dr Henson are still able to keep all of us updated on the hurricane seasons in this format. Thanks to Yale Climate Connections for their wisdom in bringing you on board. Will continue to follow you here.

  5. I’m wondering how meteologrical readings were taken in the 19th century; heck, even prior to high speed planes in the early 20th.

  6. Jeff, given the last couple of weeks, on Kappa, I wouldn’t underestimate the probability of its intensification!

  7. Thank you Dr. Masters for this stunning account of what is actually going on.
    The times surely are a changing.
    Is this going to be a one off year? Or is the the start of a new era, where anything physically is possible?
    I think it all started with the big storm Hydan in the Philippine’s a few years back now and the storm that almost hit Mexico at 200 MPH, now Cat 5s in mid November in the Atlantic zone.

  8. Mauritius Meteorological Services
    Tropical Cyclone Advisory #18 – 22:00 PM RET November 16 2020
    East Northeast of Rodrigues island

    At 18:00 PM UTC, Severe Tropical Storm Alicia (985 hPa) located at 16.9S 71.9E has 10 minute sustained winds of 55 knots with gusts of 80 knots. The cyclone is reported as moving south southwest at 6 knots.

    Storm Force Winds
    40 nm radius from the centre, extending up to 50 nm in the eastern semi-circle and up to 60 nm in the southwestern quadrant

    Gale Force Winds
    50 nm radius from the centre, extending up to 65 nm in the eastern semi-circle and up to 80 nm in the southwestern quadrant

    Near Gale Force Winds
    70 nm radius from the centre, extending up to 90 nm in the northeastern quadrant and up to 120 nm in the southern semi-circle

    Dvorak Intensity: T3.0/4.0/W1.5/12 HRS

    Forecast and Intensity
    12 HRS: 17.9S 71.7E – 40 knots (Tempête Tropicale Modérée)
    24 HRS: 19.2S 71.1E – 35 knots (Tempête Tropicale Modérée)
    48 HRS: 21.6S 69.0E – 25 knots (Depression se Comblant)

    Additional Information
    Over the last six hours,the shear pattern of the low is also confirmed by latest satellite imagery. In agreement with objective intensity analysis (satcon/ADT), intensity was thus downgraded to 55 kts. Minimal estimated central pressure was adjusted thanks to the buoy 5601578 currently measuring its minimum of pressure around 987hpa at nearly 20 nm from the center close at 1300utc.

    The track forecast remains driven by the eastward shift of the subtropical ridge which induces a polewards track. It then become more zonal thanks to the arrival of the subtropical anticyclone, when the system becomes weak. The probability of a fujiwara effect with Tropical Depression 02 seems rather low due to the short size of system no. 02. Uncertainty is rather strong nevertheless with many EPS members of deterministic guidance suggesting yet a more southeastward track.

    Alicia has started its rapid weakening phase due to the arrival of dry air above the inner core in relation with shear. The disappearing of the sufficient oceanic potential should end any possibility for renewed tropical deepening and fill up the system.

  9. Thank you so much for the post, Doc!
    Such an unfathomable situation unfolding in Nicaragua.

    The 1893 hurricane had 2 areas of the CONUS affected by 2 majors each- but nothing else I can think of so late in the season, close together in time, and in the satellite era.

    GA/SC had the Sea Islands Hurricane (August 27) and the Great Charleston Hurricane (Oct 13).

    Louisiana had hurricane #8 (September 7- various assessments show either Cat 2 or Cat 3 at landfall)
    and the Great Cheniere Hurricane (October 2).

  10. Thank You for the Update on Iota; I was actually pleased to see how the authorities in Nicaragua responded to Eta and with the low reported death count. Tragic side is what you note as to a potential double-hit over parts already devastated with Eta.

      1. I share the same concerns; you will end up getting first-hand reports both in Honduras and Nicaragua, from pockets of folks in far flung regions, noting mudslides or flash floods sweeping people away or under………Tragic all the way around

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