Eye of Hurricane Iota
The eye of category 5 Hurricane Iota on November 16, 2020, as seen by the Sentinel-2 satellite (Image credit: Pierre Markuse)

Hurricane Iota roared ashore in northern Nicaragua as a high-end category 4 storm with 155 mph winds and a central pressure of 920 mb at 10:40 p.m. EST November 16. Iota is the strongest Atlantic landfalling hurricane so late in the year. The previous record was held by the 1932 Cuba Hurricane, which made landfall on Little Cayman Island with 155 mph winds on November 9, 1932.

Iota made landfall 30 miles south of Puerto Cabezas (population 40,000), just 15 miles south of where Hurricane Eta made landfall as a category 4 storm with 140 mph winds on November 3. In records going back to 1851, it is unprecedented for two Atlantic category 4 hurricanes to make landfall so close together, just two weeks apart. That they did so in November, when category 4 hurricanes are rare, is truly extraordinary. Only six category 4 or stronger hurricanes have ever been recorded in November or December, Eta and Iota in the past two weeks. Here is the very short list of these late-season hurricanes, sorted by highest lifetime wind speed:

Cuba Hurricane (175 mph; Nov. 6, 1932);
Iota (160 mph; Nov. 16, 2020);
Lenny (155 mph; Nov. 17, 1999);
Eta (150 mph; Nov. 3, 2020);
Paloma (145 mph; Nov. 8, 2008); and
Michelle (140 mph; Nov. 4, 2001)

Eye of Category 5 Iota
Figure 1. The eye of category 5 Hurricane Iota as seen from an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft on November 16. (Image credit: Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters)

Destructive flooding occurring in Nicaragua and Honduras

Torrential rains from Iota are causing widespread damaging flooding in Nicaragua and Honduras, including on the Bocay and Coco rivers in northern Nicaragua, and the Aguan, Iyas, and Tocoa rivers in northern Honduras.


Iota is expected to dump catastrophic rains of 10-20 inches, with isolated amounts of up to 30 inches, across 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 brought rains of more than 20 inches to portions of this region during the first week of November.

On Monday, Colombian President Iván Duque said that Iota damaged much of the infrastructure of the Colombian island of Providencia (population 5,000), about 145 miles east of Nicaragua’s coast, killing one person. Iota’s storm surge tore up huge blocks of pavement on ocean-facing roads on Providencia and nearby San Andres Island (see Tweet).

At 10 p.m. EST Monday, the Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, airport reported sustained winds of 70 mph, with a gust of 103 mph, and Iota’s winds tore off the city’s makeshift hospital, Reuters reported. The area’s primary New Dawn Hospital has been unsafe to use since Hurricane Eta, according to 100% Noticias El Canal

Figure 2
Figure 2. Predicted four-day rainfall ending at 1 a.m. EST Saturday, November 21, from the 1 a.m. EST Tuesday, November 17, run of the GFS model. The model predicted that Iota would dump additional rainfall amounts of more than five inches (orange colors) to portions of the Caribbean, with over 10 inches (dark yellow colors) falling in northern Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico. (Image credit: NOAA/AOML)

Iota rapidly weakening over Nicaragua

At 1 p.m. EST Tuesday, Iota was 105 miles east of the Honduras capital city of Tegucigalpa, headed west at 12 mph. Iota at that point was a tropical storm with top winds of 65 mph, and a central pressure of 988 mb.

Satellite imagery early Tuesday afternoon showed Iota was still well-organized, with a large area of heavy thunderstorms lashing Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and Costa Rica.

Iota will move westward over the high terrain of Nicaragua and Honduras through Tuesday night, when it is predicted to weaken to a tropical depression. By Wednesday morning, Iota is expected to become post-tropical over El Salvador. Heavy rains from the remnant circulation of Iota still will continue over northern portions of Central America and southern Mexico through Thursday.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Infrared satellite image of Hurricane Iota at 10:40 p.m. EST Monday, November 16, as the storm was making landfall near Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. (Image credit: NOAA)

A tropical disturbance near Panama may develop late this week

Recent runs of the GFS and European models have consistently predicted 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 Panama. However, the models were less certain about development of this disturbance in their Tuesday morning runs than they were in their Monday runs.

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 Panama at most risk of experiencing a landfall. None of the 51 members of the 0Z Tuesday European model ensemble forecast, and none of the 31 members of the 12Z Tuesday GFS model ensemble forecast, predicted that the new disturbance would be a landfall threat for northern Nicaragua, where Iota and Eta hit.

The most recent model forecasts show the disturbance developing very close to the coast of Panama by Friday or Saturday, then potentially crossing into the eastern Pacific Ocean, 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.

If Kappa does form, 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 could be a significant heavy rain threat for southern Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, with 4-8 inches of rain possible Friday through Sunday.

Also see: October 2020 was fourth-warmest October on record, NOAA and NASA report

In a 1 p.m. EST Tuesday tropical weather outlook, the National Hurricane Center gave 2-day and 5-days odds of development of 0% and 30%, respectively, to this future disturbance.

Helping out the victims of the hurricanes of 2020

For those wanting to help out with charitable donations for the hurricanes of 2020, a reporter I’ve been working with in Honduras, Jeff Ernst, said in an email, “I think World Vision is doing a good job of responding to the disaster and I know several people in the local administration here and think highly of them.” I used World Vision’s Hurricane Eta donation link to help out in Honduras, and have also donated to Hurriup.org, the disaster relief charity founded by members of the Weather Underground user community. For those living in Miami, Mayor Suarez tweeted out locations where donated goods can be left for Honduras relief.

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Posted on November 17, 2020(2:03pm 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...

11 replies on “‘Extraordinary’: Iota becomes second category 4 hurricane to strike Central America in past two weeks”

  1. India Meteorological Department
    Tropical Cyclone Outlook – 8:30 AM IST November 18 2020

    A low pressure area is likely to form over central parts of southern Arabian sea around November 19th. It is very likely to move west northwestwards and concentrate into a depression over central parts of southern Arabian sea and adjoining central Arabian sea during subsequent 48 hours.

    The Madden-Julian oscillation index is currently in phase 2 with amplitude more than 1. It will continue in same phase till November 20th with amplitude remaining more than 1. Thereafter, it will move to phase 3 with amplitude becoming less than 1. Thus Madden-Julian oscillation will support enhancement of convective activity over the northern Indian ocean including Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea for next 5 days.

    Considering the sea conditions, sea surface temperature is around 29-30C over most parts of southern and east central Arabian Sea. It is slightly less (26-28C) over west central & north as. High tropical cyclone heat potential (100-120 kj/cm2) prevails over Comorin area and adjoining southwestern Bay of Bengal off southern Sri Lanka coast and Kerala coast. Tropical cyclone heat potential is around 60-80 kj/cm2 over major parts of south as except off northern Somalia coast. Tropical cyclone heat potential is less than 50kj/cm2 to the west of 68.0E and north 11.0N over the central & north as and 60 \2013 80 kj/cm2 over remaining parts of east central & northeastern Arabian Sea. Considering the environmental conditions, positive relative vorticity (25-50×10-6s-1) prevails over southeastern and adjoining southwestern & west central Arabian Sea with vertical extension upto 200 HPA level.

    Area of positive divergence (20-30×10-5s-1) prevails over southeastern Arabian Sea to the southwest of invest area. Area of positive convergence zone (05-10 x 10-5s-1) prevails over southeastern Arabian Sea to the southeast of invest area. The vertical wind shear (vws) is moderate (10-15 kts) over southeastern and adjoining southwestern & west central Arabian Sea. The upper tropospheric ridge at 200 HPA runs along 15.0N over the Arabian Sea some models like IMD GFS, NCEP GFT, and ECMWF are indicating development of a low pressure area over southeastern Arabian Sea around November 19th and further intensification into depression over southeast & adjoining east central Arabian Sea during subsequent 24-48 hours and west northwestwards movement towards Gulf of Aden. Models like NCUM and NEPS are indicating formation of depression around November 23rd. GFS GR however, all the models are unanimous about west northwestwards movement of the system towards Gulf of Aden.

  2. Here directly on the coast in southern Belize…Has been rainy all day but has gotten really gusty and rainy over the past hour..Surprisingly so considering Iota is fairly a long way southeast of us …expecting upwards of 20 inches of rain.

  3. Slower decay of landfalling hurricanes in a warming world

    AbstractWhen a hurricane strikes land, the destruction of property and the environment and the loss of life are largely confined to a narrow coastal area. This is because hurricanes are fuelled by moisture from the ocean1,2,3, and so hurricane intensity decays rapidly after striking land4,5. In contrast to the effect of a warming climate on hurricane intensification, many aspects of which are fairly well understood6,7,8,9,10, little is known of its effect on hurricane decay. Here we analyse intensity data for North Atlantic landfalling hurricanes11 over the past 50 years and show that hurricane decay has slowed, and that the slowdown in the decay over time is in direct proportion to a contemporaneous rise in the sea surface temperature12. Thus, whereas in the late 1960s a typical hurricane lost about 75 per cent of its intensity in the first day past landfall, now the corresponding decay is only about 50 per cent. We also show, using computational simulations, that warmer sea surface temperatures induce a slower decay by increasing the stock of moisture that a hurricane carries as it hits land. This stored moisture constitutes a source of heat that is not considered in theoretical models of decay13,14,15. Additionally, we show that climate-modulated changes in hurricane tracks16,17 contribute to the increasingly slow decay. Our findings suggest that as the world continues to warm, the destructive power of hurricanes will extend progressively farther inland.


    1. For me, Hurricane Wilma (2005) made this point in SE Florida. It made us re-think 2 things that were “Hurricane rules”. (1) is that a storm losses strength when crossing land and (2) that the backside of the storm is much weaker then the front.

      Wilma crossed South Florida from the west coast to the east. Hot water in the everglades made it just as strong on the east coast after crossing 110 miles of land. This article backs up that observation.

      Have there been any studies about the 2nd point? Backside of hurricane impacts being much weaker than the front side.

  4. India Meteorological Department
    Tropical Cyclone Outlook – 17:30 PM IST November 17 2020

    A Low Pressure Area is likely to form over southeastern Arabian Sea around November 19. It is very likely to move west northwestward and concentrate into a depression over southeastern and adjoining east central Arabian sea during subsequent 48 hours.

  5. Thanks so much, Dr. Masters. Wow, my heart goes out to those folks in CA. Is the “Portlight” charity still functioning–or is that only in the US? How about the Red Cross? Thanks.

  6. Thanks for this post Dr. Masters for putting into context just how strange it is for Eta and Iota to strike Nicaragua as category 4s back to back, especially in November!

    Seems the model support for a possible tropical storm “Kappa” in the southern Caribbean Sea has dropped some, I hope that continues because enough has been enough in this region. My latest birdseye view post and chart highlighting this southern Caribbean tropical wave and also a possible tropical disturbance that could emerge northeast of the Bahamas is at this link.

    1. Thank you so much for your input and thoughts.
      Enough is enough but this is not the world of past times but a potential for some sort of unknown future.
      As a passed long gone friend of mine once said, this is not the end of an era but the start of a new one! This is not the last of the last but the first of the first and the 2 are connected.
      Everything gets a little bit warmer and as the kettle starts to sing and the pan starts to sizzle, then so also the basins begin to react and bring forth their produce!

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