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By Corky Siemaszko

A hurricane named Alex has made its debut in the Atlantic Ocean six months before the cyclone season officially starts — the first time in 78 years a storm like this has formed in the month of January.

Packing maximum sustained winds of 80 mph and churning northward at a speed of 22 mph at 11 p.m. (10 p.m. ET), Alex was expected to start lashing the Azores with high winds by Friday, meteorologist Dennis Feltgen of the National Hurricane Center warned Thursday.

The position of Hurricane Alex at 10 p.m. ET Thursday.The Weather Channel

Alex weakened slightly Thursday night, but it was forecast to remain a hurricane as it hit the Azores before weakening into a non-tropical low-pressure system late Friday, forecasters said. It was expected to dump up to 7 inches of rain, raising the threat of flash flooding and landslides in the archipelago 900 miles west of Portugal.

"The good news is this won't last very long," Feltgen told NBC News. "The bad news is it is going straight through the Azores."

Ari Sarsalari, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, noted that nearly 250,000 people live in the Azores, adding: "This is going to be a pretty serious situation for them."

With an eye 15 miles wide, Alex is an average-size storm. But it arrived almost six months before the June 1 start of the hurricane season, which lasts until Nov. 30 and during which 97 percent of hurricanes arrive.

"It's very rare," Feltgen said. "With records going back to 1851, we only have one hurricane that formed in the Atlantic basin in January, and that was in 1938."

Another hurricane, Alice, formed in the Atlantic on Dec. 31, 1954, and remained a hurricane into January 1955.

Feltgen said the hurricane center began tracking Alex last week when meteorologists realized that the key ingredients were in place for a hurricane to grow.

Among other things, he said, "the water temperature is warm enough to sustain this thing."

There is a growing body of evidence that hurricanes are becoming more intense as global warming heats the oceans.

Alex Johnson contributed.