Ferocious Storm Set to Explode in North Atlantic

Some of the most powerful storms on earth form in the North Atlantic Ocean during wintertime, spelling peril for sailors unfortunate enough to encounter them. For the past few days, the meteorologists at the Ocean Prediction Center (OPC) in College Park, Md., whose job it is to warn vessels of weather hazards, have been highlighting the likelihood of a treacherous storm event that is taking place in the open ocean, to the south of Iceland.

Satellite image of the intense North Atlantic storm, taken by the NASA MODIS imager on Saturday Jan. 26.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: NASA.    

A storm that was rather inoccuous when it affected the U.S. is exploding, through a process known to meteorologists as “bombogenesis,” into a ferocious storm over the North Atlantic. The storm has intensified enough to become stronger than Hurricane Sandy was, as measured by the minimum central air pressure. That storm devastated the northern Mid-Atlantic coast in late October and the lowest pressure recorded during it was 940 mb. The current storm intensified all the way to 933 mb, if not even lower than that, based on information from the OPC on Saturday.

In a Facebook post on Friday, the OPC said the storm is expected to undergo “incredible, explosive cyclogenesis” during the next 24 hours, with the central pressure plummeting from 988 mb on Friday down to 927 mb by late Sunday. (In general, the lower the central air pressure, the stronger the storm.)

At its maximum intensity, the storm will be capable of producing winds to 90 mph, and waves of greater than 50 feet, the OPC said.

Fortunately, the storm is expected to weaken considerably before it interacts with northwestern Europe, but it could still produce strong winds in Ireland and parts of the U.K.

The storm comes about 10 days after a different storm underwent a similar process of rapid intensification over the North Pacific Ocean, pummeling the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska with hurricane force winds and high waves, but sparing the rest of the state from any major impacts.

Computer model forecast for early Sunday of significant wave heights over the N. Atlantic. (Some waves will actually be higher than indicated here, since this shows the average of the top one-third of waves.) 
Credit: Facebook/Stu Ostro.

The North Pacific storm's minimum central pressure plunged by 48 to 49 mb in just 24 hours, making it one of the most rapidly intensifying storms at a mean latitude of 34°N since 1979, according to a data analysis by Ryan Maue of Weatherbell Analytics..

As strong as the upcoming Atlantic storm is expected to get, it is not likely to set any records. The strongest extratropical storm on record in the North Atlantic occurred in 1993, when a minimum central pressure of 913 mb was recorded near Scotland’s Shetland Islands, according to Weather Underground. That was the lowest sea-level adjusted barometric pressure reading observed on the earth’s surface, with the exception of lower readings measured during tropical cyclones and tornadoes.

Climate studies have shown that extratropical storms in the Northern Hemisphere are shifting their paths northward as the climate warms, and there has been a trend toward stronger Arctic storms in recent years. However, the question of whether characteristics of storms like the one this weekend are changing in response to the warming climate is unclear, given the fact that these events have a long history in the region.

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