August 29, 2008

Experts Say Gustav In Danger Of Becoming A Hurricane

Tropical Storm Gustav appears to be headed for the Gulf of Mexico on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's deadly strike on New Orleans.

Experts say Gustav is likely to reach this current late Saturday. If the storm misses it or zips through the current, then Gustav probably won't be much of a name to remember.

The Loop Current was a key stopover for nearly all the Gulf Coast killers of the past, including Katrina and Camille, said Florida International University professor Hugh Willoughby, former director of the government's hurricane research division.

Lynn "Nick" Shay, University of Miami meteorology and oceanography professor saw Gustav's forecast track going "right down the throat" of it, he reported.

New Orleans was still squarely in the storm's sights. The most likely long-range track forecast had it going ashore west of the city on Tuesday morning as a Category 3 storm on the five-stage Saffir-Simpson scale of hurricane intensity.

"That's kind of the scary part here," Shay said. "You look at this and say, 'Boy I hope this thing doesn't really explode,' but it probably will."

Mark DeMaria, a Colorado-based expert on hurricane strength with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in 2005 Katrina went over the Loop Current and intensified rapidly and less than a month later a weak tropical storm named Rita followed Katrina into the Loop Current.

Katrina was a monstrous Category 5 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico before coming ashore near New Orleans as a Category 3 on August 29, 2005, breaching protective levees and flooding the city famed as the birthplace of jazz.

Both Katrina and Rita later weakened, which often happens to Category 3 storms by landfall.

Shay said in the last several years, meteorologists have focused more attention on the Loop Current, which is only a couple of hundred miles long and not even 100 miles wide. The evidence linking it to the worst storms is beyond circumstantial.

The depth of warm water in the current is crucial for several hundred feet because it provides continuous high-octane fuel for a storm. Hurricanes use the heat from the water to grow stronger and in the process they churn up cooler water from below, which then slows or stops the feeding process. But in the Loop Current, the deeper water is also warm and it further feeds the storm.

"Gustav is expected to be a large powerful hurricane as it approaches the northern gulf coast," the National Hurricane Center warned on Friday.

Shay said the one hopeful sign is that on his hurricane flight Thursday, he saw a pool of extra cool water north and west of the Loop Current. That could help counteract what he fears will be rapid strengthening.


Image 2: An image of the current loop current by the University of Miami.


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