The broad area of low pressure in the south-central Gulf of Mexico near the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula (labeled as 96L) has become better defined overnight and continues to produce widespread cloudiness, showers and thunderstorms across the far northwest Caribbean Sea and eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Although this system remains somewhat disorganized, with most of the storm activity on the east side of the system, more of the stronger storm activity is beginning to gravitate towards the low pressure center, an indication that the system is slowly becoming better organized.
Atmospheric conditions are expected to become increasingly favorable for the system to strengthen this weekend and the National Hurricane Center is now forecasting a high (90%) chance of this system becoming a tropical depression or tropical storm by Monday as it moves slowly northward in the Gulf of Mexico.
As such, tropical storm watches or warnings could be issued for areas of the U.S. Gulf Coast this weekend.
Computer models remain in disagreement in regards to intensity, track and timing, and continue to show a "split decision" based on a rather complicated scenario.
Some of the more reliable computer models that favored an eastward movement towards Florida last night have swung back to the west on a track towards Texas, while other equally reliable models still insist that the incoming trough of low pressure and cold front will grab 96L and carry it northeast or east towards the Florida Panhandle, Big Bend or West Central Florida.
It is important to note that confidence in the forecast of this system is low and that computer model guidance can be unreliable until a better organized system and well-defined center develops. Therefore, the entire U.S. Gulf Coast should still monitor this system through the weekend.
With these wide ranges in potential solutions, it is difficult to pin down any weather impacts for Florida. Still, heavy rainfall is still possible for much the Florida Gulf Coast and South Florida through the next several days. Rainfall amounts through Sunday night could reach 1-4 inches statewide, with the heaviest amounts expected along coastal counties from Southwest Florida into the Florida Panhandle. Depending on the timing and placement of the low, higher rainfall totals may also be possible.
These will likely not be continuous day-long rains, but instead periods of precipitation. Locally heavy rainfall may lead to flooding of some areas, but the fast movement of the showers may preclude significant flooding. However, the flooding and severe weather potential would increase if a tropical cyclone develops and takes a more eastern track toward/over the Florida Peninsula.
As the system develops and shifts slowly north this weekend, a persistent south-southeast wind field on the east side of the low center will bring increased swells and wave action into the Florida Gulf Coast and area beaches, where rip currents will also become increasingly likely. Tides will generally run 1-2' above normal and wave heights may reach as high as 5-10' which could lead to minor coastal flooding and erosion.
A Hurricane Hunter reconnaissance mission into 96L is scheduled for this afternoon. If the system develops, the next name on the 2012 storm name list is Debby.
More information on the Gulf of Mexico disturbance can be found at www.nhc.noaa.gov.
Click here to view storm related graphics. Another update will be issued Saturday afternoon.
Bradley Schaaf, Meteorologist
State Watch Office
Division of Emergency Management