Tropical Storm Ian forms, expected to hit Florida as a major hurricane

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Tropical Storm Ian formed over the central Caribbean Sea late Friday night, the latest development stage for a tropical system that had been gradually organizing since early this week when AccuWeather first warned about what increasingly looks like will be the most serious hurricane threat to the continental U.S. so far this year, particularly for Florida.

Ian, the ninth named storm of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, was tracking west-northwest with a forward speed of 12 mph on Friday. Sustained wind gusts were 40 mph and AccuWeather forecasters said the incipient storm was battling significant wind shear earlier in the day when the National Hurricane Center (NHC) named it a tropical depression, which limited its development throughout a portion of Friday.

But the AccuWeather tropical forecast team is warning of the possibility that Ian could undergo rapid intensification in the days ahead as it churns northward and the wind shear continues to subside.

In response to the looming threat of a strike from a hurricane, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a pre-landfall state of emergency late Friday afternoon for 24 counties that are at risk of being struck. “This storm has the potential to strengthen into a major hurricane,” DeSantis said in the declaration, “and we encourage all Floridians to make their preparations.”

Since Ian formed as a tropical storm sooner rather than later, it is likely to take a more northerly track. Because of this, a track into Texas is not anticipated and a path into Louisiana is highly unlikely.

"Because of very warm waters and a forecast minimal amount of disruptive winds, there is the potential for the system to undergo rapid strengthening anytime from this weekend to midweek," AccuWeather Lead Long-Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok said.

A quickly developing system will tend to track more to the east. For this reason, a track into or just off the Florida east coast is a possibility as well as a strike on the Florida west coast or the Florida Panhandle at this time. AccuWeather meteorologists will continue to refine the projected forecast based on the storm's intensity and other weather systems that can exert their steering influence.

An area of high pressure that extended from the central Atlantic to the southern Plains of the U.S. Friday will split and allow the system to move northward. That will leave an opening for a southward dip in the jet stream to push the system to the north or northeast, and the speed of that feature will be key in determining the exact trajectory.

That will be the determining factor in the system's path across Florida, and also how the storm will behave after impacting Florida, including how close it will track to the East Coast of the U.S. days later.

"Since the terrain in the western and central parts of Cuba are relatively flat, the large island may have a minimal effect on the overall strength of the storm, which could allow the system to further ramp up once it enters the bathlike waters in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico and/or the Florida Straits," Pastelok said.

Water temperatures from the northwestern Caribbean to the southeastern Gulf and Florida Straits are well into the 80s and even near 90 in some locations.

While there is the potential for the track to shift through this weekend and into next week, people in Florida, especially over the peninsula and Keys, should be prepared for a strike by a major hurricane from Tuesday to Thursday next week.

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A track into the west coast of Florida from this part of the Caribbean is rare, but it has occurred in the past couple of decades. Hurricane Charley originated from the south-central Caribbean and made a hard right turn into Florida after traveling northward across western Cuba in August 2004. Charley struck the Tampa area of Florida as a Category 4 hurricane. Charley took the lives of more than a dozen people in the Caribbean and the U.S. combined, with damage close to $17 billion.

This image of Hurricane Charley was captured as it approached Florida in Aug. 2004. (NOAA)

In the Caribbean, people in Jamaica should prepare for deteriorating conditions in the form of progressively heavier downpours and increasing winds later Saturday and Sunday with a close call. Impacts will range from a strong tropical storm to hurricane.

Next in the path of the storm will be the Cayman Islands and western and central Cuba. The Cayman Islands are located to the south of Cuba and will feel the deteriorating effects of the system from Sunday afternoon to Monday. The worst conditions in Cuba are likely from later Monday through Tuesday, given the storm's projected forward speed.

This image taken on Friday shows a strengthening tropical depression in the central Caribbean Sea. (Enhanced AccuWeather RealVue™ satellite)

The system is likely to strike the western part of Cuba as a Category 2 hurricane or stronger.

Along the system's path through the western Caribbean islands, there will be the risk of widespread power outages, torrential rain and flooding as well as dangerous and damaging seas. In the Caribbean, the heaviest rain is likely to fall from southwestern Jamaica to part of western Cuba. In portions of Cuba, a general 8-16 inches (200-400 mm) of rain is on the way with an AccuWeather Local StormMax™ of 20 inches (500 mm).

The burgeoning system is poised to bring yet another surge for the overall intensity of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, which was off to a historically slow start through its first three months.

Meteorologists gauge the overall intensity of a hurricane season by tabulating a metric known as ACE, or the accumulated cyclone energy of each named storm in a hurricane season.

As of Sept. 16, according to Colorado State University (CSU), the 2022 ACE value stood at 31.1 for the Atlantic basin and was dramatically trailing the pace of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, which finished with a value of 145.7.

However, thanks to the force and longevity of Fiona, which has racked up an ACE value of 25 and counting through Sept. 23 – the most of any Atlantic hurricane so far this year – the season’s total ACE has catapulted to 57.9. That figure still trails what is considered a normal ACE value, 84.4, through this point of the Atlantic hurricane season, according to CSU, but the developing storm will no doubt add significantly to that total.

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