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Richard Becomes Atlantic’s 17th Named Storm, May Grow

Tropical Storm Richard developed in the Caribbean off the coast of Honduras, prompting the government to issue a storm watch, and is heading for landfall on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula early next week, the National Hurricane Center said.

Richard is the 17th system with winds of at least 39 miles (63 kilometers) per hour to emerge this year, making 2010 the sixth-most active Atlantic hurricane season on record and the third-most active in the past 15 years. Only 2005 and 1995 have seen more storms.

“Significant intensification is possible if the system remains far enough away from land,” and the storm may grow into a hurricane before it crosses the Yucatan and enters the southern Gulf of Mexico, according to a hurricane center forecast analysis issued at 4:30 p.m. East Coast time.

Richard won’t be a threat to U.S. oil and gas platforms, said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist with Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. The Gulf is home to 31 percent of U.S. oil and 10 percent of its gas production, most of it concentrated in the waters from Mississippi to Texas.

Richard is currently 200 miles east-northeast of Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Nicaraguan-Honduras border, with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph, according to the center. Honduras has issued a tropical storm watch from the border to Limon, meaning winds of at least 39 mph are possible within two days.

Richard is also expected to drop as much as 8 inches of rain on Jamaica, and some areas in higher terrain may receive 10 inches, according to the hurricane center.

Likely Path

Rouiller said the most likely scenario is for the storm to arc toward Florida and western Cuba after it crosses the Yucatan, losing strength because colder and dryer air, as well as hostile wind shear, will tear at its structure.

Some computer models show the system growing into a major hurricane with winds of at least 111 mph, Category 3-level on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, prior to making landfall in Mexico early next week, according to the hurricane center.

With 17 storms, 2010 is behind just 2005, with its record 28 storms, for the most this century. In 2008 and 2003, 16 developed. Nineteen formed in 1995.

“We’re getting into a very active season, one that is reaching unusually active levels,” Rouiller said. “It just lends credence to the notion that the Gulf of Mexico has dodged a bullet this year. So has Florida.”

Earlier Predictions

Preseason predictions called for 2010 to be an active year because of warm water in the Atlantic and a lack of wind shear across the basin.

In August, the U.S. Climate Prediction Center revised its forecast to call for 14 to 20 storms. It had originally predicted 14 to 23 storms. Colorado State University in August repeated its preseason forecast for 18 storms, 10 hurricanes and five major hurricanes. In addition to the 17 storms that have formed, there have been nine hurricanes, five of which became major.

“Certainly from a numbers perspective we’re very happy,” said Phil Klotzbach, co-author of the Colorado State forecast. “It is certainly coming in as good as we can expect. You don’t expect to do this good every year.”

The season, which officially ends Nov. 30, may produce a few more storms.

The hurricane center is tracking a tropical wave off the coast of Africa that has a 30 percent chance of becoming a storm in the next two days. That system has caught Klotzbach’s eye.

Looking Ahead

The wave “is looking phenomenal and that could even form in the next couple of days,” Klotzbach said. “Which would be pretty interesting because usually you don’t have stuff form off the coast of Africa in late October.”

The waters between Africa and the Lesser Antilles are where storms tend to form during the heart of hurricane season, from mid-August to mid-September. As the Northern Hemisphere enters autumn, the conditions that can help hurricanes form tend to diminish in that area.

This year, the waters of the Atlantic have been warmer than normal, which is in part what prompted many forecasters to predict a more active season. Klotzbach said the water is still very warm and may be what is helping the new system develop.

The Yucatan and Central America have received the bulk of storm hits this year.

Last week, Hurricane Paula grazed the Yucatan before striking western Cuba as a tropical storm, a month after Tropical Storm Matthew drenched Honduras, Guatemala and southern Mexico. Tropical Storm Karl plowed across the Yucatan on Sept. 15 after going ashore south of Cancun, then strengthened into a hurricane over the Gulf before striking mainland Mexico near Veracruz.

Earlier this season, Hurricane Alex also struck the area, as did Tropical Storm Agatha, which came in off the Pacific. At least 300 people have died from this year’s storms, according to reports from several Central American nations.

“Certainly the U.S. has been very lucky,” Klotzbach said.

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