Hurricane Irma was fluctuating in intensity, but was still a Category 3 storm Friday evening.
In the 11 p.m. advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Irma’s sustained winds had dropped to 115 mph, down from 120 mph at the 5 p.m. advisory. Irma had picked up speed ever so slightly, moving toward the west at nearly 14 mph, up from 13 mph at the 5 p.m. advisory.
A turn toward the west-southwest is expected on Saturday, the forecasters said.
The storm was located about 1,405 miles from the Leeward Islands.
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While fluctuations in strength, both up and down, are possible over the next few days, Irma is expected to remain a “powerful hurricane’’ through the weekend and is expected to near land as a major hurricane, the forecasters said.
With a new center in place, forecasters said it’s likely Irma will now strengthen, although they noted ocean waters are only moderately warm and the storm could face higher wind shear in coming days.
The storm also began making a westward turn Friday afternoon. A high pressure ridge — that has been at the center of debate over which path Irma takes — should begin turning the storm to the southwest Saturday and continue steering it in that direction over the weekend. When the hurricane reaches the edge of the ridge, it should begin turning to the northwest. But it’s still too soon to tell when that will occur, making impacts to the U.S. still uncertain.
Whatever its future path, Irma is still expected to be a major hurricane when it nears the Lesser Antilles next week, forecasters said. Some islands could see dangerous winds, storm surge and heavy rain, they said.
If Irma reaches Florida, it could take at least 10 days, a long time to predict tracks with any certainty, said former hurricane center director Rick Knabb, now a hurricane expert at the Weather Channel.
“You’re going to see model run after model run changing from cycle to cycle, and some are going to imply greater threats to Florida,” he said. “We all have a tendency, and I do it too, to try to figure out which one is right. But the only thing we can do at 10 days is realize it’s the peak of the hurricane season and do the thing we’re supposed to do: Find out if you’re in an evacuation zone and where you would go.”
What’s worrisome is the ridge, Knabb said. Forecasters are not seeing any significant change that would guarantee a turn to the north, which can happen with storms so far away.
“It’s going to be a long annoying wait to see how things play out,” he said. “Hopefully that trough over the East Coast in a week or so will be our friend.”
Forecasters are also keeping an eye on a new wave rolling off the African coast and are giving the system a 60 percent chance of becoming a tropical cyclone over the next five days.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich