Tropical Storm Matthew is forecast to strengthen into a hurricane on Thursday as it tracks west through the Caribbean. The storm will likely make a sharp turn to the north over the weekend, putting Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba at risk. Beyond that, uncertainty is creeping higher as forecast models struggle to nail down where this potentially dangerous storm may track next week.
Residents along the Gulf and East coasts should monitor forecasts through the weekend, while keeping in mind the outcome of Hurricane Joaquin in 2015; subtle changes in a hurricane’s track can lead to very different outcomes. Landfall is far from certain, but well within the range of possibilities. It’s also possible that this storm doesn’t strengthen enough to be a major threat.
Matthew became the 13th named storm of the 2016 season on Wednesday morning and continued to strengthen overnight in the warm environment of the Caribbean. At 70 mph, the system’s sustained wind makes it a strong tropical storm, but its satellite appearance is ragged and not well-organized. The spinning winds at the surface are clearly visible instead of covered by thick, thunderous clouds, which suggests the storm is struggling against strong upper-level winds. But those winds are expected to weaken over the coming days, which should allow Matthew to become the season’s 5th hurricane on Friday or Saturday.
Tropical Storm Matthew’s track is high-confidence in the short term, but its uncertainty grows beyond the weekend. Forecast models remain in excellent agreement on a westward motion through Saturday, after which it will make a sharp turn to the north.
On that path it will encounter Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba — all mountainous islands that have a history of tearing apart tropical storms, especially ones that aren’t that strong to begin with. If Matthew survives these islands, its track becomes much more uncertain beyond that.
Two of our best global forecast models, the GFS and the European, have consistently shown the turn to the north. But there is some divergence in predictions on Thursday. The GFS is suggesting Matthew will take a path up the East Coast, with a potential landfall. The European model, however, has a very wide spread in its possible paths — anywhere from the eastern Gulf of Mexico to a path that takes the storm well out to sea with little or no impact to the East Coast.