Irma may become Category 4 hurricane while tracking across Atlantic; Will it affect the US?


By Faith Eherts for AccuWeather

While the Gulf Coast continues to deal with the devastating impacts of Harvey, emergency managers in the United States have another tropical threat to monitor by the name of Irma.

Far across the Atlantic, west of the Cabo Verde Islands, Irma strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane as of Thursday afternoon. Irma has since weakened to a Category 2 hurricane, but restrengthening is expected.

"There is the potential for Irma to ramp up to an even more powerful hurricane this weekend," according to AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski.

"While fluctuation in strength is likely, we expect Irma to become a Category 4 well before it reaches the Lesser Antilles," Kottlowski said.

A Category 4 hurricane has sustained winds of 130-156 mph (209-251 km/h).

Subtle changes in water temperatures and atmospheric conditions, such as slightly drier air and a small patch of strong winds aloft, can cause significant fluctuations in strength in even the strongest of hurricanes.

As of early Saturday morning, Irma was located about 1,320 miles (2,120 km) east of the Leeward Islands with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph (177 km/h).

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A flipped over truck and flooding are seen after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. As Harvey's winds die down, trouble for Texas has just begun as days of flooding rains across the heart of U.S. energy production threaten the country's fourth-largest city and leave farmers struggling to save horses, cows and crops. Photographer: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Flooding and a damaged home are seen after Hurricane Harvey hit Rockport, Texas, U.S., on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. As Harvey's winds die down, trouble for Texas has just begun as days of flooding rains across the heart of U.S. energy production threaten the country's fourth-largest city and leave farmers struggling to save horses, cows and crops. Photographer: Alex Scott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Texas National Guard soldiers aid stranded residents in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 27, 2017. Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD/Texas Military Department/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
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Vehicles drive through a flooded street as the effects of Hurricane Henry are seen August 26, 2017 in Galveston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey left a trail of devastation Saturday after the most powerful storm to hit the US mainland in over a decade slammed into Texas, destroying homes, severing power supplies and forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Damage is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey August 26, 2017 in Katy, Texas. Hurricane Harvey stalled over central Texas on Saturday, August 26, 2017, raising fears of 'catastrophic' flooding after the megastorm -- the most powerful to hit the United States since 2005 -- left a deadly trail of devastation along the Gulf Coast. The latest forecasts show that Harvey, now downgraded to tropical storm status, will hover along the shore for the next four or five days, dumping massive amounts of rain. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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Irma will take about a week to make its trek westward across the Atlantic Ocean. Meteorologists will likely be tracking this storm through the middle of September.

"All interests in the eastern Caribbean will need to monitor the progress of this evolving and dangerous hurricane," Kottlowski said.

This animation shows Hurricane Irma spinning westward over the south-central Atlantic. The eye of the storm has been undergoing changes in recent hours and fluctuations in strength are likely this weekend. (NOAA/satellite) 

"Surf will begin to build on the east-facing beaches in the Leeward and Windward islands late this weekend into early next week, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.

How much seas, surf and winds increase during the first part of next week will depend on the exact track of Irma.

“Steering winds will guide Irma close to the Leeward Islands and then perhaps Puerto Rico and Hispaniola during the middle days of next week,” according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Brian Thompson.

"While the hurricane is strong, it is relatively small in size at this time," Sosnowski said. "Should this small size continue, severe effects from the storm may be limited to a radius 50 miles (80 km) of the center, while the storm moves through the tropics."

Locally heavy showers and gusty thunderstorms may extend beyond 100 miles (160 km) from the eye. Torrential rain and flooding will be a concern, if and where the eye wall approaches the islands.

Beyond early next week, there is a wide range as to where Irma may go and the storm may grow in size.

Plenty of atmospheric factors highlighted by non-tropical systems will come into play to determine its path. These non-tropical systems will be moving around.

RELATED: Deadliest hurricanes in US history

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Deadliest hurricanes in US history
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Deadliest hurricanes in US history

Galveston Hurricane, 1900

The Category 4 storm, which made landfall in Galveston, Texas, ranks as the deadliest weather disaster in U.S. history. It killed at least 8,000 people, according to the National Weather Service. The storm also flattened thousands of buildings in the coastal city of Galveston, leaving many people homeless. The city was flooded by a storm surge more than 15 feet (4.6 meters) tall.

In this photo: Men use ropes to pull away the debris of houses in order to look for bodies after the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Okeechobee Hurricane, 1928

The Category 4 storm made landfall in Palm Beach County, Florida. An estimated 2,500 people died, but the figure could be as high as 3,000, according to the National Weather Service. The south shore of Lake Okeechobee was hit by severe flooding as a surge of water topped dikes in the area.

Photo by Planet News Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina, 2005

The hurricane made a direct hit on New Orleans as a Category 3 storm, causing levees and flood walls to fail in dozens of places. Most of New Orleans was flooded, and some people who were stranded in their homes climbed to the roofs to await rescue. About 1,200 people died, according to the National Weather Service. Most victims were in Louisiana, but neighbouring Mississippi also was hard hit. Katrina caused an estimated $108 billion in damage, making it the costliest hurricane ever to strike the United States.

In this photo: Christian Schloegel stands amidst the rubble of his grandmothers home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Mississippi, on August 30, 2005.

Photo by Oscar Sosa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Great New England Hurricane, 1938

The Category 3 storm made landfall in Long Island and Connecticut. It caused about 600 deaths, including off-shore fatalities, according to the National Weather Service. Parts of Massachusetts experienced wind gusts up to 186 miles per hour (299 km/h).

In this photo: Men search for bodies in the wreckage caused by the Great New England Hurricane.

Photo by Seelig/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Hurricane Audrey, 1957

The Category 4 hurricane struck near the Texas-Louisiana border, unleashing storm surges that reached up to 25 miles (40 km) inland in the low-lying areas, according to the National Weather Service. It killed more than 400 people.

In this photo: Wreckage shows the aftermath of Hurricane Audrey, Louisiana.

Photo by Shel Hershorn/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Florida Keys Labor Day Hurricane, 1935

The storm ripped through the Florida Keys as a Category 5 storm. It then moved north just off the western coast of Florida before turning inland and making landfall as a Category 2. More than 400 people died.

In this photo: Rescue workers search for more victims of a 100-mile-an-hour hurricane.

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"At this early stage, it is unclear whether a non-tropical storm will draw Irma toward the U.S., push it away or miss affecting it entirely prior to the middle of the month.," Kottlowski said.

Possibilities range from a landfall from the northern Caribbean islands to Florida, the Carolinas or Bermuda. There is also a chance the system curves northward and avoids North America entirely or slides into the Gulf of Mexico.

"At some point next week, Irma will begin to take a more west-northwest path," Kottlowski said. "Whether Irma then continues to curve northwestward and then northward or remains on a steady west-northwest path is uncertain.

More from AccuWeather: 
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Tropical downpours may hinder cleanup and recovery efforts in Texas, Louisiana early next week 
How to help: Donate to assist Harvey victims reeling from the storm's catastrophic damage 
AccuWeather predicts Hurricane Harvey to be more costly than Katrina, Sandy combined 
Reports: Water supply cut off for entire city of Beaumont, Texas, amid Harvey’s horrific flooding

More details on the path of Irma will follow in the coming days.

Residents who live along the East Coast or have interests in the Caribbean Sea should take time to review emergency procedures and make sure they are prepared for extreme tropical conditions.

Cruise and shipping interests may need to adjust their route as Irma approaches.

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