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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tropical Storm Julia strengthens into a hurricane

A satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a tropical depression in the southwestern Caribbean Sea before it strengthened into Tropical Storm Julia on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.

By Christine Hauser

Tropical Storm Julia became a hurricane Saturday night near several Colombian islands and was headed toward Nicaragua, forecasters said.

The storm was about 20 miles west-southwest of San Andres, a Colombian island, as of 8 p.m., with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. The storm was about 125 miles east-northeast of Bluefields, a municipality on the east coast of Nicaragua.

A hurricane warning from the Colombian government for the islands of Providencia, San Andrés and Santa Catalina was in effect, as well as one for parts of Nicaragua. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the entire coast of El Salvador. The warnings refer to storm conditions that are expected within 36 to 48 hours.

Forecasters warned of life-threatening flash floods and mudslides from heavy rains over Central America through the weekend.

Julia has been strengthening as it churns westward across the southwestern Caribbean Sea. After it passes near the San Andres and Providencia islands Saturday evening, it will most likely reach the coast of Nicaragua overnight and travel across Central America more slowly, the center said.

Hurricane Julia is expected to continue strengthening until landfall in Nicaragua. Then, forecasters said it will weaken into a tropical storm before becoming a tropical depression Monday. It is expected to dissipate by Monday night.

Heavy rainfall could set off flash flooding and mudslides in parts of Central America, which could get 4 to 8 inches of rain, and up to 15 inches in isolated areas, the center said.

A storm surge could raise water levels 4 to 6 feet above normal tide along the coast of Nicaragua, with large and damaging waves, forecasters said.

Swells generated by the storm are already affecting Jamaica and were likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.

Providencia, the Colombian island under a hurricane warning, was decimated by Hurricane Iota in 2020, according to the United Nations.

“Although the loss of human life was minimal, the impact on the island’s precious ecosystems deeply changed the perspective of its inhabitants,” the U.N. said. “Two years later, they’re still working to get back their environmental treasures and preparing for the next challenge climate change might bring.”

The Colombian government was watching the progression of the storm to plan how it could support the Caribbean region.

“We are on maximum alert,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro said on Twitter Saturday.

He directed hotels to open space for people who needed to seek refuge in the areas affected by the storm.

The Ministry of Public Works in El Salvador had machinery and technicians ready Saturday morning to attend to storm-related emergencies.

“We are all organized to execute work that protects lives,” the department said on Twitter.

Julia formed 10 days after Hurricane Ian made landfall in Florida. Ian barreled across the state as a powerful Category 4 storm, destroying neighborhoods and infrastructure, unleashing floods, wiping out power and killing at least 120 people, according to state and local officials.

Ian, which later regained hurricane strength before making landfall in South Carolina, followed a relatively quiet start to the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November. There were only three named storms before Sept. 1 and none in August, the first time that has happened since 1997.

Storm activity picked up in early September with Danielle and Earl, which formed within a day of each other, and Ian, which formed Sept. 26.

In early August, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an updated forecast for the rest of the season, which still called for an above-normal level of activity. In it, they predicted the season — which runs through Nov. 30 — could see 14 to 20 named storms, with six to 10 turning into hurricanes that sustain winds of at least 74 mph. Three to five of those could strengthen into what NOAA calls major hurricanes — Category 3 or stronger — with winds of at least 111 mph.

Last year, there were 21 named storms, after a record-breaking 30 in 2020. For the past two years, meteorologists have exhausted the list of names used to identify storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, an occurrence that has happened only one other time, in 2005.

The links between hurricanes and climate change have become clearer with each passing year. Data shows that hurricanes have become stronger worldwide during the past four decades. A warming planet can expect stronger hurricanes over time, and a higher incidence of the most powerful storms — though the overall number of storms could drop because factors like stronger wind shear could keep weaker storms from forming.

Hurricanes are also becoming wetter because of more water vapor in the warmer atmosphere; scientists have suggested storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 produced far more rain than they would have without the human effects on climate. Also, rising sea levels are contributing to higher storm surge — the most destructive element of tropical cyclones.

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