Tropical Storm Matthew strengthened to a hurricane Thursday afternoon and will likely continue intensifying on a track that could take it across Cuba early next week.
In their 2 p. m. advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Matthew was located 190 miles northeast of Curacao, with sustained winds reaching 75 mph. The storm had sped up to 17 mph and is expected to continue strengthening over the next two days.
Hurricane force winds extend 70 miles from the center with tropical storm force winds reaching about 205 miles and blowing strongest on the storm’s northeast side.
A ridge of deep warm air continued to steer the storm west. But over the next two days, the storm should round the corner and make a turn north, forecasters said.
Where that turn occurs would determine whether Matthew cuts across Cuba, Haiti, or in between. Forecasters said Thursday computer models leaned more toward a path over Cuba, taking the storm’s center across the island’s eastern end in the next four days. But two other models show a slower moving storm crossing Hispaniola. While the spread between the models narrowed Thursday, forecasters warned there was still a good deal of uncertainty about the track beyond three days.
On Thursday, hurricane-stifling wind shear picked up. Forecasters said the shear was likely to fade over the next three days, allowing Matthew to strengthen. However, the models again disagree on predicting shear, a key factor in the storm’s strength and future track.
With so much warm water and faltering wind shear ahead, forecasters worry Matthew could rapidly strengthen, giving flood-prone countries including Haiti and Cuba little time to prepare. Having such uncertainty about the track makes preparations even more worrisome. In his blog for Weather Underground, meteorologist Jeff Masters said some questions could be cleared up when a G-IV hurricane hunter, nicknamed Gonzo and out of commission since August, investigates the storm.
Unlike other missions, the high altitude Gonzo scouts out the environment around and ahead of the storm at altitudes between 41,000 and 46,000 feet to give forecasters a better bead on the storm’s track, said hurricane center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. Past flights have improved forecasts by as much as 20 percent, he said.
“So that G-4 data is very important,” he said.
Two flights are scheduled, tonight and again tomorrow, for the Tampa-based plane over the Central Caribbean and the Bahamas, Feltgen said. A model crunching data from the 29 dropsonde sensors dropped from the plane should begin producing the first new track by late Thursday, he said.
Masters also warned that despite track discrepancies now in models, they agree that Matthew will almost surely be a hurricane by the time it makes landfall, possible as a Cat 2 storm.
On Wednesday, Matthew pounded Barbados with heavy winds. Authorities placed the island on lock down, Barbados Today reported, which was lifted early Thursday.
A tropical storm watch remained in effect for Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba, which will likely beginning feeling the storm’s force later today. Forecasters upped their rain estimates to between 2 and 4 inches across the islands through Friday.