Improving our Understanding of Tropical Cyclone Unusual Motion and Rapid Intensification

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Despite steady improvement in their tropical cyclone (TC) track and intensity forecasts over recent decades, operational numerical weather prediction (NWP) models still struggle at times in predicting two TC phenomena: climatologically unusual motion and rapid intensification (RI). Atlantic TCs typically move clockwise along curved tracks skirting the southern, western, and northwestern periphery of the Western Atlantic Ridge. Hurricane Joaquin (2015) followed a particularly unusual hairpin loop-shaped track that was poorly predicted by most operational NWP models, including the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) Global Forecast System (GFS). Over recent years, considerable interest has also developed in understanding the cause-and-effect relationship between RI, defined here as a maximum surface wind (VMAX) intensification rate exceeding 15 m s-1 (24 h-1), and outbreaks of inner core deep convection, known as convective bursts (CBs), that have been observed to precede or coincide with RI in some TCs. A deeper physical understanding of the atmospheric processes governing TC unusual motion and RI, together with retrospective case study analyses of model forecast errors, will help us to identify NWP model components – data assimilation and physical parameterizations, for example – that may need further improvement.

This research project seeks to (i) identify the atmospheric features that steered Hurricane Joaquin (2015) along the southwestward leg of its looping track and (ii) investigate the thermodynamic and three-dimensional characteristics of CBs as a first step toward developing a more comprehensive understanding of how CBs may facilitate RI. To accomplish (i), we generate a high-resolution Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model Control (CTL) simulation of Hurricane Joaquin (2015) that reproduces its looping track and intensification trends. Comparing CTL forecast fields against sensitivity WRF simulations initialized from perturbed analyses and against two representative GFS forecasts, we find that a sufficiently strong mid-to-upper level ridge northwest of Joaquin and a vortex sufficiently deep to interact with northeasterly geostrophic flows surrounding the ridge are both necessary for steering Joaquin southwestward. These results suggest that more accurate track forecasts for TCs developing in vertically sheared environments may be at least partly contingent on improved vortex initialization; for these cases, assimilation of more inner-core observations such as cloudy radiances and airborne radar-derived winds could be particularly beneficial.

We address (ii) by comparing parcel traces, thermodynamic variables, and vertical accelerations along trajectories run through CB updraft cores with trajectories representative of the background eyewall ascent in a Hurricane Wilma (2005) WRF simulation. We compute three-dimensional trajectories from WRF-output winds using a model developed for this study that implements an experimental advection correction algorithm designed to reduce time interpolation errors, with the latter confirmed by tests on analytical and numerically-simulated flows. Results show that Wilma’s CBs are characterized by significant thermal buoyancy, particularly in the upper troposphere; this is consistent with their lower environmental air entrainment rates and reduced midlevel hydrometeor loading relative to the background ascent, and with their updrafts being rooted in portions of the boundary layer where ocean surface heat and moisture fluxes are locally higher.