Jeff Masters on Conundrums, Drought, Isaac, Kirk, & Leslie

Unanswered questions concerning Hurricane Isaac

Published: 4:35 PM GMT on August 31, 2012

The top winds of Tropical Depression Isaac have fallen to 25 mph, but the storm continues to be a potent rain-maker as it heads north-northwest at 11 mph into Missouri. Isaac has spawned up to 20 suspected tornadoes, brought storm surges as high as 13.6′ to the coast (in Lake Borgne, LA), and dumped 20″ of rain at one station in New Orleans. The 13.27″ of rain that fell at Hattiesburg, MS broke the record for wettest August in the city’s history (previous record: 13.03″ in 1987.) Major flooding is occurring on seven rivers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Isaac is being blamed for at least four deaths in the U.S., 24 in Haiti, and five in the Dominican Republic.

A few notable rainfall totals from Isaac, through 11 am EDT on Friday:

20.08″ New Orleans, LA
15.02″ Marion, MS
13.99″ Pascagoula, MS
13.27″ Hattiesburg, MS
10.85″ Gulfport, MS
10.39″ Slidell, LA
10.17″ Biloxi, MS
9.85″ Mobile, AL
7.38″ Pine Bluff, AR
5.95″ Baton Rouge, LA

A major reason for Isaac’s heavy rainfall totals has been its very slow motion. This slow speed was due to the fact Isaac has been bumping into a ridge of high pressure that is unusually strong, due to the intense drought over the center of the U.S.; strong drought-amplified high pressure areas are very resistant to allowing any low pressure areas to intrude into their domain. The high pressure area was strong enough this week to allow several all-time records for heat this late in the year to be set:

112° on August 29 at Winner, SD
108° on August 29 at Valentine, NE
107° on August 29 at Corpus Christi, TX
97° on August 29 at Denver, CO (2nd highest so late in the year)

Figure 1. Nighttime view of Hurricane Isaac taken at 1:57 am CDT August 29, 2012, by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi-NPP satellite. The VIIRS day-night band detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared, and uses light intensification to enable the detection of dim signals. In this case, the clouds of Isaac were lit by moonlight. Image credit: NASA.

Isaac’s beneficial rains falling in drought-stricken regions
Hurricanes get a lot of attention because of the billions in damage they cost, and the lives they disrupt. AIR Worldwide estimated today that insured damage from Isaac would cost up to $2 billion. This does not include damage to infrastructure or uninsured damage, so the final price tag of Isaac’s rampage will be more like $3 – $5 billion. However, Isaac is now dumping beneficial rains over Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky–regions stricken by the worst drought since the 1950s or 1930s, depending upon the exact location. These regions need 9 – 18 inches of rain to pull them out of drought. Isaac’s 3 – 6 inches of rain will not end the drought, but will put a pretty good dent in it. I expect that 3 – 6 inches of rain for a wide swath of prime agricultural land in extreme drought is probably worth at least $5 billion, when you consider that a recent estimate by a Purdue economist put the cost of the great drought of 2012 at more than $77 billion. Only Hurricane Katrina ($146 billion) and the drought of 1988 ($78 billion) have been more expensive disasters, according to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center. Unfortunately, Isaac’s arrival is poorly timed, as the storm is arriving during harvest season. The strong winds associated with the storm will flatten many crops, making it more difficult to harvest them, and Isaac’s winds may cost farmers several hundred million dollars due to unharvestable crops. Still, the rains from Isaac will be highly beneficial for the success of the upcoming winter wheat season, and for next year’s growing season.

Figure 2. Predicted precipitation for the five-day period ending on Tuesday evening shows that Isaac is expected to bring a large region of 3 – 6 inches of rain (red, orange, and brown colors) to Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. Image credit: NOAA/HPC.

Figure 3. The great drought of 2012 has brought so little rain to the Midwest that some areas require over 15″ of rain (dark purple colors) to end the drought. Image credit: NOAA/CPC.

Unanswered questions about Hurricane Isaac

1. Did the passage of Hurricane Isaac stir up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? Isaac was the first hurricane to pass over the site of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We know that large hurricanes are capable of creating currents in deep water at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico; Hurricane Ivan caused upwelling currents of 0.5 cm/s at a depth of about 500 meters. In an August 28 article in the Huffington Post, Nick Shay, professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami, said: “Winds will push water away from the center of a storm, which causes an upwelling as the ocean tries to adjust. It brings whatever is near the bottom up higher in the water column and currents can then push it towards the coast.” Up to 1 million barrels of oil from the spill are estimated to still be present in the deep water sediment, on beaches, and in the marshes of Louisiana, and it is possible some of this oil will wash up on the Gulf Coast in coming months. The storm surge of Isaac also likely flushed out oil lodged in the coastal marshes of Louisiana, but it is unknown how much of a concern this might be.

2. What’s the deal with these super-sized Category 1 and 2 hurricanes that have been hitting the U.S.? The past three landfalling hurricanes in the U.S.–Isaac (2012), Irene (2011), and Ike (2008)–have all been exceptionally large, among the top ten on record for horizontal extent of tropical storm-force winds. Each of these storms had an unusually low pressure characteristic of a storm one full Saffir-Simpson category stronger. Is this the new normal for U.S. hurricanes?

3. Did the new $14.5 billion upgrade to the New Orleans levee system cause worse flooding elsewhere? Whenever a new levee or flood control structure is created, you make someone else’s flood problem worse, since the water has to go somewhere. Where did the water was stopped by the new $1.1 billion, 1.8 mile-long Lake Borgne flood barrier on the east side of New Orleans go? Did it flow south and contribute to the overtopping of the levees near Braithwaite? Or did it go north and contribute to the 36 hours of storm surge in excess of 5′ observed along the Mississippi coast at Waveland? I posed this question to NHC’s storm surge expert Jaime Rhome, and he said it was impossible to know without doing detailed storm surge modeling studies.

4. Can only hurricanes beginning with the letter “I” hit the U.S. now? Isaac (2012), Irene (2011), and Ike (2008) are the last three hurricanes to hit the U.S. It turns out that hurricanes that begin with the letter “I” and “C” have more names on the list of retired hurricanes than any other letter (nine each.) I’m thinking Isaac will get its name retired, letting storms beginning with “I” take over sole possession of first place on the retired storms list.

Hurricane Kirk in the Central Atlantic
Hurricane Kirk intensified into a 105 mph Category 2 hurricane this morning, becoming the 2nd strongest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. Hurricane Gordon was the only stronger storm; Gordon hit sustained winds of 110 mph just before reaching the Azores Islands on August 18. Kirk has probably peaked in intensity, and is about to move over colder waters and gradually decay. Kirk is not a threat to any land areas.

Figure 4. Morning satellite image of Tropical Storm Leslie.

Tropical Storm Leslie a long-range threat to Bermuda, Canada, and the U.S. East Coast
Tropical Storm Leslie formed on Thursday in the Central Atlantic. Leslie’s formation date of August 30 puts 2012 in 2nd place for earliest formation date of the season’s 12th tropical storm. Only 1995 had an earlier formation date of the season’s 12th storm. With records dating back to 1851, this year is only the second time 8 total storms have formed in August. The other year was 2004, when the first storm of the season formed on August 1 (Alex), and the 8th storm (Hermine) formed on August 29th. Satellite loops show that Leslie has a modest amount of heavy thunderstorm activity, and respectable low-level spiral bands and upper-level outflow. Conditions appear ripe to allow Leslie to intensify into a Category 2 hurricane by Sunday. Fortunately, Hurricane Kirk is weakening the ridge of high pressure to the north of Leslie, and Leslie is expected to turn to the northwest and miss the Lesser Antilles Islands. However, steering currents for Leslie are expected to collapse early next week, as Leslie gets stuck between two upper level lows. The storm will then slowly meander over the open ocean for many days, potentially threatening Bermuda. Leslie will stay stuck until a strong trough of low pressure approaches the U.S. East Coast around September 8. This trough should be strong enough to pull Leslie to the north and then northeast by September 9. At that time, Leslie may be close enough to the coast that the storm will make landfall in New England, Canada, or the Mid-Atlantic states. Leslie could also miss land entirely; this all depends upon the timing and strength of the September 8 trough of low pressure. Regardless, Leslie is expected to bring an extended period of high waves to the U.S. coast. According to NOAA’s Wavewatch III model, large swells from Leslie will reach Bermuda by Monday, and arrive along the U.S. East Coast on Tuesday. These waves will be capable of creating dangerous rip currents and beach erosion.

Portlight disaster relief charity responds to Issac
The disaster relief charity, founded and staffed by members of the wunderground community, are in Mississippi, helping out with Isaac relief efforts. You can check out their progress or donate to Portlight’s disaster relief fund at the website.


Jeff Masters on TS Isaac, TS Kirk, & New Development

Isaac slamming Gulf Coast with damaging floods, tornadoes

Published: 4:44 PM GMT on August 30, 2012

Slow-moving Tropical Storm Isaac continues to hammer coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida’s Panhandle with tornadoes, torrential rains, high winds, and a damaging storm surge. Over the past 24 hours, destructive tornadoes have touched down in Biloxi and Pascagoula, Mississippi, and one person was killed by a tree falling on a car in Pearl River County, Mississippi. A major flood event is occurring in Slidell, Louisiana, where Isaac’s storm surge filled Bayou Bonfouca and the W-14 Canal, inundating portions of the city with 1 – 5 feet of water. While Isaac is now a weakening minimal-strength tropical storm, it is still a potent rainmaker, and will cause damaging floods all along its path for the next three days. Major river flooding is occurring or is about to occur on a number of rivers in the landfall area. In north central Tangipahoa Parish in southeast Louisiana and southwestern Pike County in southern Mississippi, a mandatory evacuation has been ordered for all low-lying areas and along the Tangipahoa River, due to the potential failure of the Lake Tangipahoa dam. Audubon Park in New Orleans, recorded 19.30″ of rain as of 7 pm Wednesday night, and 18.7″ of rain in a 24-hour period. This is the greatest 24-hour rainfall event at any official New Orleans site, with weather records extending back to 1871, according to wunderground’s weather historian, Christopher C. Burt. A few other rainfall totals from Isaac, through 11 am EDT on Thursday:

15.02″ Marion, MS
10.09″ Hattiesburg, MS
10.15″ Gulfport, MS
9.80″ Slidell, LA
9.74″ Biloxi, MS
8.52″ Mobile, AL
5.57″ Baton Rouge, LA

Figure 1. Isaac’s winds and storm surge overcomes the seawall and floods South Beach Boulevard in Waveland, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012, the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis). Waveland experienced a storm surge in excess of 5′ for 36 hours.

Isaac’s storm surge winds down
Storm surge levels along the coast of Mississippi and surrounding areas are gradually receding, and the surge has finally fallen below 5′ at Waveland, which experienced a storm surge in excess of 5′ for 36 hours. Isaac’s storm surge levels were characteristic of a Category 2 hurricane, and lasted for an exceptionally long period of time. Waveland, Mississippi experienced a peak surge of 8′ and peak storm tide of 9′ (surge plus the natural high tide), which beat the levels that occurred during Category 2 Hurricane Gustav of 2008 (7′ of storm tide.) The peak 11.06′ storm surge at Shell Beach, which is in Lake Borgne, 30 miles southeast of New Orleans, exceeded the 9.5′ surge recorded there during Gustav. According to an article in, Isaac pushed a storm surge of 13.6′ into Lake Borgne, on the east side of New Orleans. This is not far from the 15.5′ storm surge Hurricane Katrina brought to the location. It is quite possible that Isaac’s storm surge might have breached levees of the east side of New Orleans, flooding areas inhabited by tens of thousands of people, had the Army Corps of Engineers not completed their $14.5 billion upgrade to the New Orleans flood defenses this year. I estimate that storm surge damage from Isaac will exceed $2 billion. Isaac has likely caused $2.5 billion in insured damage not related to flooding, insurance firm Eqecat estimated yesterday. Here were some of the peak storm surge values that were recorded at NOAA tide gauges during Isaac:

11.1′ Shell Beach, LA
8.0′ Waveland, MS
3.5′ Pensacola, FL
4.6′ Pascagoula, MS
3.8′ Mobile, AL

Figure 2. A TRMM satellite 3-D view of rainfall on Aug. 28 showed a few very powerful thunderstorms near Isaac’s eye were reaching heights of almost 17 km (10.6 miles.) Intense bands of rain around Isaac were occasionally dropping rain at a rate of over 2.75 inches per hour. Image credit: SSAI/NASA, Hal Pierce.

Isaac’s storm surge on the Mississippi River
A storm surge estimated at 12′ moved up the Mississippi in Plaquemines Parish near Port Sulphur, LA, near 8:30 pm EDT Tuesday, causing overtopping of the levees and flooding of homes in the mandatory evacuation areas behind the levees. These levees were not part of the $14.5 billion levee upgrade New Orleans got after Hurricane Katrina, and were not rated to Category 3 hurricane strength, like the levees protecting New Orleans are. Since salt water is more dense than fresh water, the surge travelled along the bottom of the river, with the fresh water flow of the river lying on top. The surge continued upriver, and before reaching New Orleans, encountered an underwater barrier in Plaquemines Parish. This barrier was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers beginning on August 15, in order to keep salt water from moving upstream and contaminating drinking water for Plaquemines Parish and New Orleans. Salt water had made it 90 miles upriver to the outskirts of New Orleans, due to the low flow rate of the river (which had dropped 7′ below average in height due to the drought of 2012.) According to a spokesperson for the National Weather Service River Forecast Office, this barrier was probably able to completely block the flow of salt water upriver due to Isaac’s storm surge, and no salt water made it as far as New Orleans. However, the massive intrusion of ocean water into the river channel caused the mighty Mississippi’s fresh water flow to back up for hundreds of miles. Water levels were elevated by 10′ in New Orleans (103 miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi), 8′ in Baton Rouge (228 miles upstream), and 1.4′ at Knox Landing, an amazing 314 miles upstream.

Hurricane Kirk in the Central Atlantic
Hurricane Kirk intensified into a 75 mph Category 1 hurricane this morning, becoming the busy 2012 Atlantic hurricane season’s fifth hurricane. With the season’s mid-point of September 10 still almost 2 weeks away, we’ve already had 12 named storms and 5 hurricanes, which is close to what an entire season experiences in an average year (11 named storms and 6 hurricanes.) Kirk should stay well out to sea and not trouble any land areas.

Figure 3. Morning satellite image of Hurricane Kirk.

Tropical Depression Twelve forms in the Central Atlantic
Tropical Depression Twelve has formed in the Central Atlantic, and appears destined to become a hurricane before the week is out. Fortunately, Hurricane Kirk is weakening the ridge of high pressure to the north of TD 12, and the storm is expected to turn to the northwest and miss the Lesser Antilles Islands. In the long term, it remains unclear if TD 12 will follow Kirk and fully recurve out to sea. The latest run of the GFS model predicts TD 12 will recurve out to sea and not threaten any land areas, but the latest run of the ECMWF model predicts that the trough of low pressure pulling Kirk to the norhteast will not be strong enough to recurve TD 12 out to sea. Instead, the ECMWF predicts that a ridge of high pressure will build in early next week, forcing TD 12 more to the northwest, making the storm a potential threat to Bermuda, the Northeast U.S., and Canada.