Hurricane Lee formed almost a week ago, rapidly intensifying as it moved westward across the open waters of the Atlantic.
It is easy to look at a map showing a major hurricane with a forecast path pointed directly at the United States and think the East Coast is in for it. But as of Sunday night, such an outcome was not the most probable.
Lee’s arrival isn’t expected until later this week or the beginning of the next, which is beyond the official forecast from the experts at the National Hurricane Center. They have warned against speculating on the potential outcome because too many factors are still at play.
Here’s what we know about the hurricane:
What is Lee’s current location and path?
As of 5 p.m. on Sunday, Hurricane Lee was about 285 miles north-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands, which are in the northeastern Caribbean, and the storm was moving west-northwest at 8 miles per hour, the Hurricane Center said.
Lee had maximum sustained winds of 120 m.p.h., making it a Category 3 storm. Some strengthening is expected Sunday night into Monday, the Hurricane Center said.
Lee currently does not threaten any land, and there are no coastal watches or warnings in effect. However, dangerous surf conditions generated by the storm are expected to affect portions of the Lesser Antilles, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas and Bermuda through much of this week, the Hurricane Center said.
As Lee grows in size, these dangerous surf and rip currents are also expected along most of the U.S. East Coast, starting first in the Southeast and spreading northward over the next couple of days.
Meteorologists are fairly confident that Lee will stay north of the Caribbean. Several forecast models suggested the storm would veer north, but the possibility and timing remained unclear, as was any threat posed to the United States.
Why is Lee’s path so complicated?
Storms like to move along the path of least resistance. That path is typically toward low pressure. A high-pressure system is expected to build to the northwest of the storm and slow Lee’s western movement to almost a common walking pace.
Such unknowns complicate the forecast: How long does the storm keep moving west, and how slow does it get? Lee will be pushing against a wall of high pressure, waiting for the weather pattern to shift.
The expected slow movement of the storm is the main reason forecasters have repeatedly said that “it remains too soon to know what level of impacts, if any, Lee might have along the U.S. East Coast, Atlantic Canada or Bermuda late next week.”
The most likely outcome is that the pattern will begin to break down and the storm will be allowed to turn north.
Go here for the latest maps and trackers, as Lee moves through the Atlantic.
How big is this storm going to get?
Lee intensified rapidly on Sept. 7, with its wind speeds doubling to 160 m.p.h. The storm has seen fluctuations in intensity over the weekend, dropping to a Category 2 storm earlier on Sunday.
Lee is forecast to regain Category 4 status on Sunday night or early on Monday and also to grow in size. The storm should plateau in strength through midweek before weakening again.
What are the chances it will hit the U.S. East Coast?
There is still some chance, but it is currently not the most likely outcome. Lee might also hit Canada or stay farther east and move across Bermuda. As of now, the models indicate that a landfall in Canada is quite possible, even though it is still too early to tell for certain or to make any plans.
What is the timing of the hurricane?
The most likely development is that the storm will remain in the Atlantic, likely somewhere between the East Coast and Bermuda by Friday.
Any landfall in the United States or Canada could happen over the weekend.
Tell me what the models show. (Also, what’s a spaghetti model?)
One previous version of a model suggested that the East Coast could get hit, a possibility that has lingered in the minds of some forecasters and amateur weather watchers, in part because of widespread social media hype.
But when you look at all the versions of the model, there is not an overwhelming consensus on where the center of the hurricane will go after this weekend, with some outliers projecting landfall along the East Coast.
Sometimes, multiple models are displayed on a single map with lines plotting where that computer simulation believes the center of the storm will be five, seven or even 14 days in the future.
Known as spaghetti models, these mapped model outputs derive their name from their resemblance to long strands of pasta.
The closer the lines are to one another, the more confidence forecasters have in what the storm might do. For the next few days, there is a pretty reliable consensus that the storm will track northwest.
When the spaghetti lines spread wider apart, forecasters have many more possibilities to contend with.
What has this year’s hurricane season been like so far?
We’re a little over halfway through the Atlantic hurricane season, which started on June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.
In late May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted 12 to 17 named storms this year, a “near-normal” amount. On Aug. 10, NOAA officials revised their forecast upward, estimating 14 to 21 storms, and the last few weeks have been busy.
When it formed on Tuesday, Lee became the 12th named storm of this year’s Atlantic season. (And the 13th if you count an unnamed storm in January that experts at the Hurricane Center said should have been named.) Lee is also the eighth since Aug. 20, when two tropical storms, Emily and Franklin, formed. A week later, on Aug. 30, Tropical Storm Idalia made landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast as a Category 3 hurricane.
Tropical Storm Margot formed on Thursday and was expected to strengthen into a hurricane.
Anastasia Marks and Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.