Alex, a rare January Atlantic hurricane, has weakened slightly as it approaches the Azores. With 75 mph winds, it is barely still a Category 1 hurricane.
It is the fourth known storm to arrive in the first month of the year since forecasters began keeping track in 1851.
On Friday morning, the storm was flying to the north at 23 mph, quickly closing on Portugal’s Azores islands from 130 miles (about 210 kilometers) to the south, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Some parts of the Azores are under a hurricane warning.
The fact that Alex has hurricane strength at all is surprising because tropical storms thrive most over warm waters, something that’s unexpected in the North Atlantic in the middle of winter.
The water was indeed cool — about 68 degrees Fahrenheit — but the air was super cold at minus 76 degrees. The 144-degree difference helped give the storm enough energy to be a hurricane, meteorologist Chad Myers said.
The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30, but that doesn’t mean tropical systems don’t pop up at other times, although it is infrequent.
Alex is not just the first named storm of 2016, but it’s also the first named storm to form in the Atlantic in January since 1978.
The middle of the Atlantic
About 900 miles from Europe and 2,300 miles from the United States, the Azores are marked by rolling green hills and volcanic peaks. 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 F.
About 250,000 people live in the Azores.
The central Azores islands of Faial, Pico, Sao Jorge, Graciosa and Terceira now face hurricane warnings due to Alex. Tropical storm warnings are in place for Santa Maria and Sao Miguel, which contains the autonomous region’s capital and largest city, Ponta Delgada.
The storm is expected to dump 3 to 5 inches of rain on the islands, with 7 inches possible in isolated areas. That precipitation could spur mudslides and flash floods, while dangerous storm surges could produce flooding along the coast.
There’s no expectation if Alex will directly strike the United States or Europe. Instead, it will likely head north toward Greenland.