Hurricane Maria…after devastating the island nation of Dominica with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph and gusts over 190 mph…is now threatening the highly populated US territory of Puerto Rico and also the US Virgin Islands as a Category 5 hurricane. Maximum sustained winds are near 175 mph at 8 pm EDT and the hurricane continues to intensify. It is now the 9th most intense hurricane on record by minimum central pressure (906 millibars as extrapolated by the USAF Reserve Hurricane Hunters; more than 100 mb lower than Earth’s average sea level pressure). For comparison, the most intense hurricane on record in the North Atlantic was 2005 Hurricane Wilma (882 mb) and 2005 Hurricane Katrina by comparison had a minimum central Pressure of 902 mb at its peak with winds of 175 mph (ranked 7th by pressure). There are signs the hurricane is continuing to intensify. The next hurricane hunter plane will arrive in the storm by 10:30 pm EDT.
As of now, there is absolutely NOTHING to stop the power of the storm, except internal, inner core processes (like an eyewall replacement cycle). The waters under Maria are 1-1.5 degrees C (~2-3 degrees F) above normal and the oceanic heat content (includes warmth with depth) and resulting tropical cyclone heat potential is MUCH above normal along the track.
The eye will pass near or over the island of Saint Croix late tonight and make landfall in Eastern Puerto Rico tomorrow morning. Both landfalls are expected at Category 5 intensity with gusts over 185 mph in the inner core (particularly northern eyewall). In addition to the violent winds, rainfall of 12-18+ inches are possible over the USVI and Puerto Rico, along with landslides in the mountainous terrain, where winds may also be even more violent than near sea-level.
Needless to say, this is a truly horrific situation evolving for a territory of 3.5 million people; and a territory still recovering from much weaker hurricane impacts from Irma two weeks ago. USVI such significant damage from Irma as well.
I will an update on Maria later this evening as new data comes in.
–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey