Uncertainty continues to swirl around a mass of thunderstorms in the southern Gulf of Mexico that seems poised to become a tropical system this weekend.
How strong will it get? Which way will it turn? Could Florida be hit by its first named storm of the season?
The answers, experts say, may not be clear until Sunday.
Two competing systems will determine which way the system will move — an area of high pressure in the southwestern United States and a low-pressure system along the East Coast.
But it will be slow going.
Meteorologists said a path probably won't be clear until Sunday, at which point westerly winds are expected to die down enough for the system to develop into Tropical Storm Debby.
"It's a slow-moving process," said National Hurricane Center forecaster Robbie Berg. "It's a big, sprawling system that doesn't have a real defined center. It's pretty disorganized."
As the process plays out, forecasters said, Florida will get a good drenching.
The Tampa Bay region could see up to 4 inches of rain through the weekend, according to Bay News 9, with parts of South Florida getting even more.
At 8 p.m. Friday, forecasters estimated there was an 80 percent chance the system would become a tropical storm within 48 hours, and they warned residents along the entire Gulf Coast to keep an eye on the system through the weekend.
If the system turns into a tropical storm, it would be the first time since the National Hurricane Center began keeping records that four named storms developed so early in the season, officials said.
Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist of Weather Underground, said it's doubtful that the storm will have enough time to strengthen to worrisome levels.
"But surprises do happen," he said.
On Friday, it was still too early to say which way the storm would turn, but Berg said it appeared more likely to take a turn to the west — and away from Florida — than to roll across the peninsula.
The high-pressure system near Texas will probably develop faster than the low pressure to the system's east, Berg said, pushing the storm westward.
"I'm not saying it can't hit Florida," he said. "It's just not looking like the more likely scenario."
All eyes will be on the gulf over the weekend.
Tropical storm formations in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean are common for the early part of hurricane season, which began June 1, said Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay.
Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.