Ophelia becomes a major category 3 hurricane, heads for Ireland

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Near-record warm water has allowed Ophelia to strengthen further, making it a major category three hurricane south of the Azores, U.S. forecasters say. The storm is expected to lose some of its intensity as it moves closer to Ireland.

As of 3 p.m. local time on Saturday, the center of Ophelia was located about 355 kilometers (220 miles) south of the Azores. Its maximum sustained winds have increased to 185 kilometers (115 miles) per hour with gusts up to 222 kilometers (138 miles) per hour.

“Ophelia is a quite intense and rare hurricane for its location in the northeastern Atlantic,” said Lixion Avila, a senior hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC). Near-record warm waters south of the Azores allowed Ophelia to defy the odds and continue to strengthen.

“Ophelia is breaking new ground for a major hurricane. Typically those waters [are] much too cool for anything this strong,” said NHC hurricane specialist Eric Blake.

The center of the hurricane is expected to stay well away from the Azores, but the islands may experience tropical storm-force winds on Saturday evening. Ophelia is also expected to produce total rain accumulations of 2.5 to 7.5 centimeters (1 to 3 inches) over the central and southeastern Azores.

Increasing shear and cold waters will impact the hurricane as it moves towards Ireland, and Ophelia should begin to acquire extratropical characteristics on early Monday. This should induce weakening although Ophelia is expected to remain a powerful storm – the equivalent of a category one hurricane.

Ireland’s weather service Met Eireann on Saturday issued a code red for the country’s southern and western region, warning that Ophelia could cause structural damage, flooding along the coast, and other types of disruption. A code orange is in effect for the rest of the country.

The center of Ophelia is expected to make landfall in Ireland on Monday afternoon, even though the exact location is still unclear. Avila added that wind and rains will arrive “well in advance” of the cyclone’s center.

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