‘Alex’ strengthens to a rare January hurricane

Posted at 6:32 AM, Jan 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-14 10:56:11-05

UPDATE: Alex has strengthened into a hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center. 

The National Hurricane Center has upgraded a storm brewing in the Atlantic Ocean to hurricane status, a rarity both given its timing and strength.

Hurricane Alex is located 490 miles (about 790 kilometers) south of Portugal’s Azores islands, parts of which are under a hurricane warning. It’s even less common when such a storm strengthens into a hurricane, which often thrive most over warm waters.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30, though that doesn’t mean tropical systems cannot pop up at other times.

Alex is not just the first named storm for the 2016 calendar year. It’s also the first named storm to form in the Atlantic in January since 1978, the first January-born hurricane since 1938, and just the fourth known storm to arrive in the month since records began in 1851.

As of 10 a.m. ET, Alex packed maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, which is handily above the 74 mph threshold to gain hurricane status. It’s moving north-northeast at a 20-mph clip.

The storm should eventually turn north and pick up speed before going over the Azores on Friday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Situated about 900 miles from Europe and 2,300 miles from the United States, the Azores are marked by rolling green hills, volcanic peaks and peaceful, idyllic communities. The archipelago — which Portuguese navigators discovered uninhabited in 1427 and is home to the U.S. air base at Lajes Field — has a subtropical climate, with temperatures hovering year-round between 57 and 71 degrees.

The central Azores islands of Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa, and Terceira now face hurricane warnings due to Alex, while tropical storm warnings are in place for Santa Maria and Sao Miguel, which contains the autonomous region’s capital and biggest city, Ponta Delgada.

The storm should dump between 3 and 5 inches of rain on the islands, with 7 inches possible in isolated locales. That precipitation could spur mudslides and flash floods, while dangerous storm surges could produce bad flooding along the coast.

There’s no expectation, though, that Alex will directly strike either the United States or mainland Europe. Instead, it will likely head north toward Greenland.