Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hurricane Irene (2011)

Storm Active: August 20-29

On August 15, a tropical wave moved off of Africa, but dry air near the system did not allow significant development. However, on August 17, a small area of convection formed in associated with the wave, followed by a low pressure center on August 19, when a definite circulation appeared in the clouds. Pressure in the area began to fall overnight, but no surface circulation had yet formed. During the evening of August 20, however, rapid intensification occurred, and a very organized surface circulation appeared. Hurricane hunter aircraft found winds high enough for the system to skip the tropical depression stage, and the low became Tropical Storm Irene, packing 50 mph winds even at its formation!

Early on August 21, Irene moved over the Lesser Antilles, and, being a fairly large cyclone, caused gale force winds and tropical storm conditions over a wide area as it entered the Caribbean. The cyclone was still moving westward at a fast clip, with its forward speed exceeding 20 mph. Irene maintained its intensity throughout the day, and made landfall in Puerto Rico that evening, causing heavy rain and very strong winds over the entire island. Despite some interaction with land, Irene rapidly strengthened, its circulation and outflow improving greatly that night. A huge burst of convection engulfed the system early on August 22, and the cyclone became Hurricane Irene, the first hurricane of the 2011 season.

Irene decelerated during the morning, and continued to move west-northwest, leaving Puerto Rico, where over 10 inches of rain fell in localized areas. The eyewall developed further during the evening of August 22, and the Irene rapidly intensified into a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds as it passed just to the north of the Dominican Republic, with tropical storm conditions covering much of the country, and gusts of hurricane force on the northern coasts. Irene slowed down even more during the morning of August 23, with a forward speed of 10 mph to the west-northwest as it approached the Bahamas.

Later in the morning, a ragged eye appeared, and the central pressure of Irene dropped slightly. However, it was not a well-formed structure, and it clouded over in the afternoon, causing a weakening not uncharacteristic of eye replacement, putting the system back to a Category 1 intensity. Land interaction decreased considerably as Irene moved away from Hispaniola during the evening, convection returned in earnest, the central pressure dropped further, and another, more organized eye appeared. The cyclone soon regained its lost strength, and then intensified further, as it encountered the Turks and Caicos Islands during the morning of August 24. The system's winds surpassed 110 mph that same morning, and Irene became the first major hurricane of the season, with 115 mph winds and a pressure of 957 mb.

By later in the day, Irene had entered the Central Bahamas, the eye was tightening, and a new eyewall was forming. As a result of this, the eye began to cloud over, causing fluctuations in intensity. However, the system remained a Category 3, and the central pressure continued to steadily drop. Irene maintained its northwest motion into August 25, as surf began to increase along the U.S. coast. Later in the day, Irene finally left the Bahamas, and made a turn northward, toward the Outer Banks of North Carolina, early on August 26. The pressure of the cyclone dropped to 942 mb, the lowest yet for the cyclone, but another eye replacement weakened the system, decreasing its wind speeds to that of a Category 2 hurricane.

Rain bands from Irene were already beginning to sweep across the U.S. east coast from Florida up through the Carolinas. The internal structure of Irene remained slightly disorganized, and gradual weakening occurred as conditions became less favorable for intensification. Powerful outer bands packing tropical storm force winds penetrated into North Carolina through the day. Late on August 26, the convection became rather lopsided, with the southwest quadrant weak, and Irene subsequently weakened to a Category 1 hurricane early on August 27. Around 8:00 am EDT that morning, Hurricane Irene made landfall with 85 mph winds in eastern North Carolina, just west of the Outer Banks.

The cyclone began to assume a more asymmetrical appearance that afternoon, with most of the rain extending northward, reaching even Pennsylvania and New Jersey by early afternoon. The circulation, however, actually increased in definition as the day wore on. The forward speed of Irene finally began to increase that evening, but the cyclone moved steadily north-northeast, and emerged over water once again later that night, paralleling the Virginia coastline. Dry air entered Irene's southern side, and weakened it slowly through the morning of August 28, as the center of the hurricane made landfall in New Jersey before sunrise. At the time, the cyclone had weakened to a strong tropical storm, with 70 mph winds.

The windfield of the storm, however, was larger than ever, as tropical storm force winds spanned portions of 8 states. During the morning, Irene began to rapidly accelerate to the north-northeast, while quickly transitioning to an extratropical cyclone. By this time, all precipitation associated with Irene was on its north side, with the exception of one rain band, which protruded to the southwest, and affected areas as far south as Maryland even into early afternoon. The cyclone weakened to a tropical storm before making landfall in New York City that same morning. Irene persisted in the same general motion throughout the day, still bringing gusty winds to much of the northeast, before finally becoming extratropical near the U.S. border with Canada late that night. Rainfall continued in Canada as the remnants of Irene continued speeding northeastward, and the low emerged into the north Atlantic on August 30, passing near Greenland by the next day.

Irene had a devastating impact on areas from the Lesser Antilles to Vermont, and caused between 10 and 20 inches of rainfall locally in all regions along its path. The Bahamas, in particular, suffered high wind damages, as Irene was at peak intensity over the islands. Damage is estimated at $10.1 billion, and 54 fatalities resulted from the cyclone. Irene was also the first storm to make landfall in the U.S. at hurricane intensity since Ike of 2008.

Irene as a major hurricane entering the Bahamas.

Track of Irene on its path through the Caribbean, the Bahamas, and along the east coast of the United States.

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