Ernesto reaches hurricane strength as it approaches Mexico’s Yucatan

MIAMI, FLORIDA (BNO NEWS) -- Ernesto, located in the northwestern Caribbean Sea and quickly approaching the southern Yucatan Peninsula near the Belize-Mexico border, strengthened into a category one hurricane on Tuesday, forecasters said. Landfall is expected within hours.

Forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) have been following the weather system since July 30 when a tropical wave accompanied by a surface low pressure system emerged in the far eastern Atlantic. It became a tropical depression and then a tropical storm as it approached the Caribbean, where it continued to strengthen in recent days.

As of 7 p.m. CDT on Tuesday (0000 GMT Wednesday), the center of Ernesto was located about 65 miles (105 kilometers) east of Chetumal, a Mexican city on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is moving toward the west-northwest at about 18 miles (30 kilometers) per hour.

Maximum sustained winds of Ernesto have increased to near 85 miles (140 kilometers) per hour, with higher gusts, making it a category one hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity. Some strengthening is expected but the hurricane is unlikely to reach category two status before landfall.

A hurricane warning is in effect from Chetumal to Tulum on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mexican island of Cozumel, and the coast of Belize from Belize City northward to the border with Mexico. A tropical storm warning is also in effect from north of Tulum to Cabo Catoche on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, south of Belize City southward to the border with Guatemala, and from Celestun southward and westward to Chilitepec along the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

"Hurricane conditions are expected to reach the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the warning area tonight," said NHC senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart. "Total rainfall accumulations of 4 to 8 inches (10.1 to 20.3 cm) with isolated maximum amounts of 12 inches (30.4 cm) are possible over Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Guatemala. These rains may produce life-threatening flash floods and mud slides over higher terrain."

Ernesto is expected to weaken back to a tropical storm after it makes landfall on the Yucatan Peninsula, but will remain a threat. "Restrengthening is expected when Ernesto moves into the Bay of Campeche, but rapid weakening and dissipation should occur after the second landfall in Mexico due to very high terrain," NHC senior hurricane specialist Richard Pasch said.

Hurricane Ernesto is the fifth tropical cyclone of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially began on June 1. It was followed by the sixth tropical cyclone when Tropical Storm Florence formed in the far eastern Atlantic, but the storm dissipated on Monday without affecting any land.

According to figures released in late May, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center is expecting a near-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic this year. The outlook calls for nine to fifteen named storms, with four to eight becoming hurricanes and one to three of them expected to become a major hurricane (category 3 or higher).

Based on the period from 1981 to 2010, an average Atlantic hurricane season produces twelve named storms, with six becoming hurricanes and three becoming major hurricanes. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30, with peak activity between August and October.

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