What a difference a day has made for Joaquin. The storm has morphed from a weak tropical storm with loads of forecast uncertainty to a hurricane that’s likely to continue strengthening and a track that appears to be narrowing to landfall somewhere between North Carolina and New Jersey.

The storm would bring heavy rain to a region that’s already set to get a firehose of moisture aimed straight at it for the rest of the week, increasing the risk of flooding.

Joaquin attained Category 1 hurricane status on Wednesday morning with winds at 80 mph. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting Joaquin to strengthen and reach Category 3 status by this weekend. That would make the storm the second major hurricane of the Atlantic season.

Hurricane Joaquin satellite image

Satellite imagery of Hurrican Joaquin on Wednesday morning.


Pressure in the storm — one measure of intensity — has dropped to 972 millibars, the lowest any Atlantic tropical storm has reached this year. A more clear eye is also developing, indicating the storm is continuing to organize and strengthen.

Where — and to a much lesser degree than yesterday, if — the storm makes landfall in the U.S. is still uncertain. Models are zeroing in on a landfall somewhere between North Carolina and New Jersey early next week, with the Mid-Atlantic the most likely location, but there’s one model (the Euro, of Sandy forecast-nailing fame) that sends the storm recurving out to sea.

Atlantic sea surface temperatures
Atlantic sea surface temperatures

Atlantic ocean temperatures, including a warm swath of water near the Bahamas and northward where Joaquin is forecast to travel.

The wide spread of possible tracks is due in large part to the atmosphere over the East Coast and North Atlantic, which is a hot mess right now. The combination of a cold front near the East Coast, a strong ridge of high pressure over the North Atlantic and a low pressure system in the Southeast U.S. are all moving parts in addition to Joaquin that are causing much of the uncertainty in the track.

What is certain is the storm is expected to strengthen through the weekend thanks to decreasing wind shear and Joaquin spending an extended period of time over very warm waters. The waters along Joaquin’s path are record warm with temperatures in the lower and mid-80s, temperatures ideal for rapid storm intensification. The storm is going to drive major surf including 55-foot waves as it moves northward.

Before reaching the East Coast, the storm has the Bahamas in its sites. Joaquin sits about 250 miles to the west of the island chain and will bring a foot or more of rain and hurricane-force winds on Thursday morning. Outer bands of the storm could reach the easternmost islands as early as tonight.

And putting aside Joaquin for a moment, the East Coast is still in for a boatland (an ark-load, even) of rain. The Northeast currently feels like the tropics as warm, humid air has been streaming into the region since Tuesday. In the Mid-Atlantic, heavy rain has already kicked off the week with up to 3.4 inches of rain yesterday. More is on tap as a cold front continues to scoot into the region.

The Mid-Atlantic could see up to 11 inches of rain — and locally higher amounts aren’t out of the question — without even seeing a drop from Joaquin by the end of this weekend. The 4-6 inches in the Northeast is nothing to scoff at but seems downright desert-like in comparison.

Hurricane Joaquin cone of probability

The cone of probability for Hurricane Joaquin as of Wednesday late morning.