MIAMI – The newly formed tropical storm Zeta intensified in the western Caribbean on Sunday and is likely to turn into a hurricane before hitting the resort-strewn Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the US Gulf Coast in the coming days.
Zeta was the earliest named 27th Atlantic storm recorded in an already historic hurricane season.
The system was centered about 300 miles southeast of Cozumel Island in Mexico that afternoon, the US National Hurricane Center said.
The storm was almost stationary, although forecasters said it would likely shear the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula or westernmost Cuba by late Monday or early Tuesday and then approach the U.S. Gulf Coast by Wednesday, but could weaken by then.
The storm had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph, and forecasters said Zeta is expected to intensify into a hurricane on Monday.
Officials in the state of Quintana Roo, the location of Cancun and other resorts, said they were watching the storm. They reported nearly 60,000 tourists in the state as of the middle of the week. The government continues to distribute aid, including Tin Roofing, to Yucatan residents affected by Hurricane Delta and Tropical Storm Gamma earlier this month.
Zeta can dawdle another day in the western Caribbean, trapped between two strong high pressure systems to the east and west. It can’t move north or south because nothing moves there either, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
“It just has to sit and wait a day or so,” McNoldy said. “It just takes something to move.”
If a storm gets stuck, it can discharge dangerous downpours over a location, causing flooding when a storm is over or near land. It happened over Houston with Harvey in 2017, when more than 60 inches of rain fell, and in 2019 over the Bahamas with a Category 5 Dorian, which was the worst stationary storm scenario, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
While Zeta was over the open ocean on Sunday, Jamaica and Honduras got heavy rains because the system is so large and South Florida was under a flood watch, McNoldy said.
But as soon as Zeta moves at some point, it will no longer land overland, said Klotzbach.
The Hurricane Center said Zeta could bring 4 to 8 inches of rain to parts of the Caribbean and Mexico, as well as Florida and the Keys, before soaking parts of the central Gulf coast by Wednesday.
According to a study from 2018, storms, especially in the Atlantic, are slowing down and slowing down more. Atlantic storms that caused the landing were moving 2.9 miles per hour slower than they were 60 years ago, the study said. Study author James Kossin, a government climate researcher, said the trend was showing signs of man-made climate change.
Zeta is also in a dangerous stall to stall. In the western Caribbean, “storms can boil” and intensify quickly due to the deep, warm water like Wilma from 2005, said Klotzbach. However, the National Hurricane Center did not forecast a rapid intensification for Zeta.
The lack of control currents also meant a large spread of possible landings when Zeta finally headed north to the Gulf Coast. The Hurricane Center said it could land anywhere from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle.
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards urged his state’s citizens to monitor the storm, and the state activated its crisis response team.
According to Klotzbach, Zeta broke the record for the earliest 27th Atlantic storm, which formed on November 29, 2005.
This year’s season has so many storms that the hurricane center has turned to the Greek alphabet after official names run out.
Zeta is the most distant Greek alphabet to have had the Atlantic season. There was also a tropical storm Zeta in 2005, but that year there were 28 storms because weather forecasters later went back and found they missed one that then turned into an “unnamed named storm,” Klotzbach said.
In addition, Hurricane Epsilon was moving rapidly through the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. Forecasters said it would become a post-tropical cyclone later on Sunday. Large ocean waves created by the hurricane can cause life-threatening surf and rip conditions along the U.S. east coast and Atlantic Canada for the next few days.