The Atlantic Hurricane Forecast for This Year Just Got Way Worse

Then-Hurricane Isaias off the South Carolina coast immediately prior to making landfall.
Then-Hurricane Isaias off the South Carolina coast immediately prior to making landfall.
Image: Colorado State University

Perhaps you, like me, are done with the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. Well, sucks to be us, because the heart of the season is still ahead, and a new forecast issued Thursday calls for the already hyperactive season to ramp up.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does an official mid-season forecast update every year, and unfortunately, the 2020 iteration of the update calls for even more storms than the May forecast predicted. The August update calls for up to 25 named storms, 11 hurricanes, and six major hurricanes that attain Category 3 or higher status. NOAA—not exactly an agency known for hyperbole—said in a press release we’re in the midst of an “extremely active” season. Eric Blake, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center that sits under NOAA, tweeted that this is the “most active forecast that I’ve been a part of, and that’s 22 years now.” So that’s where we’re at, as the peak of hurricane season draws closer.

The early part of the season already has been cause for alarm. Storms have appeared at a record-setting pace and reached record-setting locations. The most recent storm to set a record is Isaias, which was hurricane at landfall on Tuesday in the Carolinas and left a swath of rainy destruction and power outages up the East Coast that could remain an issue through the weekend. Isaias also left hundreds of thousands without power in Puerto Rico and affected the Bahamas before that, compounding the woes of hurricanes past for both places.

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Storm activity is well ahead of schedule, and the conditions spurring the activity aren’t relenting anytime soon. Surface temperatures in part of the Atlantic are scorching, one of the clearest signs of climate change. At the same time, winds in the upper atmosphere have been more calm than usual. Both are key ingredients for storms to spin up and grow. NOAA has also issued an La Niña Watch, a sign that ocean temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific are cooling. That could further soothe winds over the Atlantic thousands of miles away, making it easier for storms to form as we enter the heart of hurricane season.

The current record holder for most active hurricane season is 2005, which cranked out an astounding 27 named storms, including the devastating hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. That year, NOAA turned to using Greek letters to name storms for the first time in history, after it ran through the storm alphabet, which runs to “W” (2020’s final storm name is Wilfred, for those keeping track at home).

Whether this season sets the record for the total number of storms remains to be seen, as does whether a Katrina-level storm will make landfall. But with up to six major hurricanes in the forecast and the busiest part of the season still ahead, it’s obviously not something to sleep on either. The storms so far this year have also provided a glimpse of how the climate disasters will intersect with the pandemic disaster that’s particularly acute in the U.S. The recent Isaias, for example, forced Florida’s covid-19 testing centers to close temporarily as the storm strafed the coast of one of the states hit hardest by the coronavirus.

Anyways, about that disaster fatigue...

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Managing editor, Earther

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DISCUSSION

dnapl
Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Not to sound like a suckup, but... this discussion on Atlantic hurricanes forecasting was measured and appropriately limited. In other words, the discussion focussed on hurricane frequency (with some thoughts on intensity, maybe) pursuant to this season forecasting by heavy-weather folks (meteorologists and whatnots). The discussion thankfully did not end with a breezy yet brazenly confident mention of climate change to stir shit up, so to speak.

Anywho, the good folks at NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamic Laboratory (GFDL) prepared a wonderful write up for us casual observers on Global Warming and Hurricanes (revised June 12, 2020).

The premise from the summary:

Two frequently asked questions on global warming and hurricanes are the following:

What changes in hurricane activity are expected for the late 21st century, given the pronounced global warming scenarios from IPCC models?

Have humans already caused a detectable increase in Atlantic hurricane activity or global tropical cyclone activity?

The IPCC AR5 presents a strong body of scientific evidence that most of the global warming observed over the past half century is very likely due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. But what does this change mean for hurricane activity?

Hah! You’ll have to read it for their conclusions.