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How to Track Hurricane Idalia



Hurricane Idalia continued to build strength over the Gulf of Mexico’s abnormally warm waters on Tuesday, taking aim at a vulnerable but sparsely populated portion of Florida’s coastline known as the Big Bend, where the peninsula curves west into the Panhandle.

Follow our live coverage here.

Idalia’s path, which is expected to run parallel to Florida’s western coast for much of Tuesday, makes it difficult to predict exactly where the storm would come ashore: A little wobble to the east or the west could move its center toward Tallahassee to the north or Tampa to the south.

My colleagues and I on The Times’s Weather desk just redesigned our hurricane tracker with detailed information about the storm’s path and severity.

In today’s newsletter, I’m going to tell you how best to track a hurricane’s progress, especially if you’re in its path. I have nearly two decades of experience covering natural disasters like these, and there are a few things I’ve learned:

Don’t focus too much on the center of the storm: Many people look only at the “cone of uncertainty” — the familiar map that shows the likely path of the hurricane’s eye. But people often misinterpret these maps, thinking they’ll be safe if they live just outside the cone, for example. (See this 2019 article from Times Opinion for more.) Nearly a year ago, officials in Florida’s Lee County saw they were on the edge of the cone of uncertainty for Hurricane Ian and delayed an order to evacuate, with devastating consequences.

Tropical storm-force winds can be deadly, too. You can be well outside the forecast path of the hurricane and still experience deadly wind, rain and storm surges. Tropical storm-force winds typically arrive as conditions begin to deteriorate, so their estimated arrival time is a good deadline for completing storm preparations and evacuating if asked to do so. We’ve updated our hurricane tracker to track that information.

Beware the front right quadrant of the storm. Because hurricanes move counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, that’s the area that will receive more wind, water and storm surges.

Follow the storm like an expert: I like to look at the forecast models themselves. There are some new versions that just came out of experimental mode that are hurricane-specific, like the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System, which has been very accurate. Last year, it was the first model to accurately predict that Hurricane Ian would rapidly intensify as the storm moved off the coast of Cuba.

Idalia’s strength could be amplified by the unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico during a notably sultry summer.

“Holy cow has it been hot down here,” said Brian Dzwonkowski, a marine scientist at the University of South Alabama and the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “What does that translate to? Really hot water. And that’s not a good combination for hurricane season.”

Earth’s oceans have been hotter in recent months, by a considerable margin, than at any other time in modern history. In July, a buoy off the Florida coast reported a hot-tub-like reading of 101.1 degrees Fahrenheit, or more than 38 degrees Celsius, a possible world record for sea surface temperatures.

High ocean temperatures can fuel tropical storms and hurricanes. The water warms the air above the sea surface, which provides passing storms with more energy and can allow them to generate fiercer winds.

“It’s not that those warm temperatures cause the storm to form,” said Allison Wing, an associate professor of earth, ocean and atmospheric science at Florida State University. “It’s more that if a storm is able to form, it can take advantage of those incredibly warm temperatures and become a strong storm.”

The El Niño climate pattern in the Pacific, which is typically associated with less hurricane activity in the Atlantic Ocean, is complicating forecasts.

“The element of having really warm waters in the Atlantic during an El Niño climate pattern — we haven’t really seen that before, not to this extreme,” said Kim Wood, an associate professor of hydrology and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. “And so things don’t quite play out like they might in a more average El Niño year.” — Raymond Zhong

There might be one good outcome from Idalia’s chaos, scientists say: cooler water for coral reefs that have been ravaged by this summer’s record-breaking marine heat.

Hurricanes can damage reefs, breaking and toppling their limestone branches and boulders. But that’s mainly at the center. A storm’s cloud cover and wind-driven ocean turbulence, which churns water up from the depths, can end up cooling a much larger area.

Coral reefs are critical marine ecosystems that nurture biodiversity, protect coasts and drive tourism. But water that’s too hot causes coral to lose the algae they need to survive, a process known as bleaching. If the heat stress persists, the corals die.

This summer’s bleaching started in July, far earlier than expected, creating significant heat stress for Florida’s corals. Coral bleaching has also been confirmed in Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Derek Manzello, who coordinates the NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch program, said that he expected some coral damage from Idalia, but that it should be minimal compared with the devastation that coral has suffered from this summer’s extreme temperatures.

“The overwhelming emotion that everyone is feeling is cautious relief, like exhaling after holding one’s breath for two months,” he said. “I don’t think anyone really wants to go on the record and say they are happy about a hurricane or tropical storm, given the direct impacts on people and property, but I’ve heard exactly this sentiment of relief from a lot of different people.” — Catrin Einhorn

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Additional reporting by Manuela Andreoni and David Gelles.

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