MIAMI (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Ernesto swept north of the island of Barbados early on Friday and was heading quickly into the Caribbean Sea, where it could become a hurricane, forecasters said.
The center of the storm was located about 35 miles northwest of Barbados at 2 a.m AST (6 a.m. GMT) and was moving across the northern Windward Islands, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Island governments issued storm warnings for Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Lucia, Martinique and Guadalupe, alerting residents to expect storm conditions.
Ernesto was racing at a speed of 23 mph and was expected to enter the Caribbean on Friday afternoon, staying on the same northwesterly track for the next 48 hours.
This would put it just south of Jamaica by Monday, by which time it was expected to have gained hurricane strength.
It had top winds of 50 miles per hour on Friday and will become a hurricane if those swirling winds reach 74 mph.
Forecasters warned island residents to expect large waves and 2 to 3 inches of rain, with 5 inches in isolated areas.
Several computer forecasting models showed it moving through or near the Yucatan Channel into the southern Gulf of Mexico in the middle of next week. It was too early to know whether Ernesto could disrupt oil and gas operations clustered in the Gulf.
August and September are usually the most active months of the Atlantic-Caribbean hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.
"It's our first system coming out of the deep tropics this year, so maybe it's a good time for people to review their preparedness plans as we're getting into the part of the season where things normally begin to get a little more active," said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.
(Reporting by Angus MacSwan and Jane Sutton; Editing by Jon Hemming)