In what seems like a sadly familiar routine, a new tropical storm has formed in the Caribbean and is headed for the northern Gulf Coast later this week.
This time it’s Tropical Storm Zeta. It will also target Mexico’s storm-weary Yucatan Peninsula, where a hurricane watch is in effect, and then head northward toward the U.S., according to the National Hurricane Center.
It’s expected to strengthen to a hurricane as soon as tomorrow, but it could weaken some by the time it reaches the Gulf Coast on Wednesday.
The cone of uncertainty has narrowed some overnight but still stretches along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the western Florida Panhandle — including all of Alabama’s coastal areas.
The hurricane center said there is more uncertainty than usual in Zeta’s track forecast as it approaches the U.S. Forecast models range from landfall in Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle and will depend in part on another, complex weather system that’s expected to move across the U.S. this week.
Forecasters think Zeta will weaken and be a tropical storm as it approaches the Gulf Coast thanks to a combination of cooler water temperatures near the coast and increased wind shear. It still could bring heavy rain, storm surge and damaging winds to coastal areas, forecasters said.
As of 7 a.m. CDT Sunday, Tropical Storm Zeta was located about 290 miles south-southeast of the western tip of Cuba and was nearly stationary.
Zeta had winds of 40 mph, making it a minimal tropical storm. The hurricane center expects it to strengthen slowly over the next two days, and it could become a hurricane by late Monday or early Tuesday. Hurricane-force winds begin at 74 mph.
The hurricane center said Zeta is nearly stationary by should start tracking slowly northwestward later today.
On the forecast path the center of the storm will pass south of western Cuba early Monday and approach the northern Yucatan Peninsula or the Yucatan Channel late Monday.
It should move into the southern Gulf on Tuesday and head northward toward the Gulf Coast, reaching the landfall point on Wednesday.
A hurricane watch is in effect from Tulum to Rio Lagartos in Mexico as well as Cozumel.
A tropical storm warning is in effect for Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
Zeta will bring heavy rain to parts of South Florida, Mexico, Cuba, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica through the next few days. Four to 8 inches will be possible, and isolated areas could get up to a foot before it’s over, forecasters said.
Zeta’s heavy rain is expected to reach the northern Gulf Coast by Wednesday.
It’s still too soon to say exactly what the Alabama coast could be facing from Zeta thanks to the uncertain track forecast, according to the National Weather Service in Mobile.
“The timeframe of any impacts for our local area would likely be on Wednesday and into Wednesday evening,” the weather service said in its Sunday morning forecast discussion. “Bottom line for now is that all of our forecast area will have the potential heavy rain, severe weather, high surf/rip currents, as well as gusty wind and potentially coastal flooding impacts by midweek.”
Zeta is the 27th named storm of 2020 in the Atlantic, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Dr. Philip Klotzbach:
Forecasters used up the 2020 Atlantic storm name list in September and had to resort to using the Greek alphabet to name storms, the first time that’s happened since 2005. There have now been six of those: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and now Zeta.
The hurricane center is also still tracking Hurricane Epsilon in the north-central Atlantic.
As of the last update on Epsilon, at 4 a.m. CDT Sunday, the large Category 1 hurricane was located about 270 miles south of Cape Race, Newfoundland, and was moving northeast at 30 mph.
Epsilon had winds of 75 mph, making it a minimal hurricane. The hurricane center said Epsilon is expected to transition to a powerful non-tropical storm later today and will continue to bring rough surf and a risk of dangerous rip currents to the U.S. East Coast.