After a quick transformation to tropical storm status in the Caribbean over the weekend, Zeta has now strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane, in what has already been an above-average storm season.
As of 6 p.m. EDT Monday, Zeta boasted winds near 130 km/h and was roughly 145 kilometres southeast of Cozumel, Mexico. The National Hurricane Center says it is currently moving northwest at 17 km/h. Some additional strengthening is possible before Zeta makes landfall in the Yucatan Peninsula, but weakening is expected once it moves inland late Monday night and early Tuesday morning.
"On the forecast track, the centre of Zeta will move over the northern Yucatan Peninsula later today or tonight, move over the southern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, and approach the northern Gulf Coast in the watch area on Wednesday," the NHC says.
A hurricane warning is already in effect for Cozumel and Tulum to Dzilam in Mexico. A tropical storm warning is also in effect south of Tulum to Punta Allen and west of Dzilam to Progreso in Mexico.
In advance of Zeta's expected landfall onto the U.S. Gulf Coast this week, possibly on Wednesday, hurricane, tropical storm and storm surge watches have been issued along the coastal regions from Louisiana to parts of Florida. Zeta is forecast to be at or near hurricane strength when it approaches the northern Gulf Coast Wednesday.
While it isn't expected to become a major hurricane, Zeta could disrupt oil production, which prompted oil producer BP (British Petroleum) to begin shut-in production at its Gulf of Mexico platforms and assets ahead of Zeta's arrival, after initiating a staff evacuation Sunday.
A dangerous storm surge will raise water levels by as much as 1.21 metres above normal tide levels along the immediate coast in the hurricane warning area, near and to the north of where the centre makes landfall in the Yucatan Peninsula. In the U.S., storm surges of 1.21 metres to 1.82 metres are expected across parts of the Alabama and Louisiana coasts.
Rainfall totals of 100-200 mm, with local amounts of 300 mm, are possible through Tuesday along and east-northeast of Zeta's track across the Yucatan Peninsula, the Cayman Islands and central, western Cuba.
An initial area of heavy rains will begin to impact the central Gulf Coast Tuesday night, spreading north into the Tennessee Valley on Wednesday. The core of the heavy rains associated with Zeta will push northeast from eastern Louisiana across southern Mississippi, Alabama and northern Georgia through Wednesday night, and through the southern Appalachians into the mid-Atlantic on Thursday.
Rainfall totals of 50-100 mm, with isolated amounts of 150 mm, are expected across these areas, resulting in flash, urban, small stream, and minor river flooding.
Zeta is only the second named storm in history to take on that moniker. As well, if it does makes landfall onto the U.S. Gulf Coast as predicted, it will be the 11th named storm in 2020 to do so, tying a record. If it does comes onshore in Louisiana, it will be the state's fifth landfalling storm this year.
In 2005, Tropical Storm Zeta was the capstone of that year's remarkable hurricane season, which remains the record for most named storms. That season was the first to exhaust the traditional hurricane name list, with subsequent storms being designated with letters from the Greek alphabet.
2020's Zeta not only ties the current season with 2005 for the most number of named storms, it may also be a stepping stone into uncharted territory.
2005's Zeta formed much later, in December, long after the "official" end of the Atlantic hurricane season at the end of November. It also lasted into 2006, only dissipating on January 6th. So there's a non-zero chance further named storms may beckon after this year's Zeta has died down.
Check back as we continue to monitor the track and status of Zeta.
With files from Reuters.