COLUMBIA -- Tropical Storm Alberto hovered off the South Carolina and Georgia coasts on Sunday, canceling tourist cruises, producing showers along the coast and serving as a reminder that the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season is just around the corner.
The first storm of the season that officially begins June 1 was not expected to approach landfall on the Carolinas’ coast, but it had prompted a tropical storm watch and forecasters warned that it could produce high winds, heavy surf, rip currents and scattered rain across the region.
“It’s making the closest approach to the coastline now, so the impacts shouldn’t be much different than what we are already seeing,” said Jonathan Lamb, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Charleston.
At 5 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said Alberto was about 130 miles south of Charleston. It has maximum sustained winds of 45 mph.
It’s currently moving southwest at 6 mph, but forecasters expect it to turn northeast sometime Monday.
A tropical storm watch that was in effect for the South Carolina coast from the Savannah River to the South Santee River was dropped Sunday afternoon without tropical storm conditions reaching the coast.
The Weather Service did issue a coastal flooding advisory until 11 p.m. for the low-lying coastal areas of southern South Carolina and southeast Georgia.
Downtown Charleston may be affected, the Weather Service said.
Strong onshore winds from Alberto will keep tides running well above normal this evening. The levels are expected to reach between 6.9 and 7.2 feet in Charleston Harbor.
High tide tonight will occur around 8:40 p.m. and shallow saltwater flooding will be most likely between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.
A few rain bands from Alberto reached Hilton Head Island and moved south to near Jacksonville, Fla., on Sunday but they moved through in less than an hour. Winds weren’t expected to reach higher than 30 mph at the beaches, Lamb said. From Charleston to the north, even less of an impact was expected.
The hurricane center said the storm was expected to slow down through Sunday, then begin turning northeast and heading farther out to sea sometime Monday.
Alberto was named a tropical storm Saturday upon forming in the Atlantic. It was the third tropical storm to form before the official June 1 start of the hurricane season in the past 31 years.
Forecasters said there is no evidence that early-forming storms mean more tropical storms and hurricane for the rest of the season, especially with storms like Alberto that form from leftover weather fronts and low pressure systems moving off the mainland into the Atlantic.
“It’s anomalous for sure, but there’s really no indication this gives us any idea what the hurricane season is going to be like as a whole,” Lamb said.
The brief bursts of wet weather and occasional gusty winds disrupted some vacation plans along the beaches of southern South Carolina and Georgia. Swimmers were warned of dangerous rip currents, although no rescues were reported. Boat operators canceled cruises both for the choppy seas and because concerned vacationers didn’t want to go out with Alberto offshore.
“A lot of people are nervous about the weather, so we are getting cancelations,” said Kate Myers, with Island Explorer Tours on Hilton Head.
The brief storms ended by Sunday morning and the sun was occasionally peeking through, so the captain that runs the afternoon cruise through the salt marshes hoped to take tourists on his scheduled run, Myers said.
“Having a storm out there this early is just strange,” Myers said. “But it has been a weird year for weather.”
A coastal flooding advisory indicates that winds and tides will combine to generate flooding, the Weather Service said in its advisory. Salt water may inundate some low-lying areas including streets in downtown Charleston, Mount Pleasant and Savannah.
Go to the National Hurricane Center for latest updates and advisories.