Updated: Jun 1, 2020
I'll start off with a short video explaining how hurricanes form:
To be perfectly clear, this is my LEAST favorite forecast to put together each and every year. Why? Because of the destruction that can be had at the hands of a tropical storm or hurricane. Sandy was 8 years ago, but the imagines remain etched in our minds forever. I will never forget what I saw, and THAT was from a strong tropical storm/weak category 1 hurricane. Imagine what would happen if a stronger storm impacted our coast? It's bound to happen. That's the scary part. Nothing I say or do is ever meant to sensationalize or incite fear. Nothing. That's not how I operate, but I must stress the importance of having a plan in place so you and your family are on the same page.
There is historical precedent for strong hurricanes brushing by or making direct impact to our region. One of the worst? Back in 1821. The "Norfolk and Long Island" hurricane (this was back before they had official names given by NOAA, obviously, is recorded to be one of the few category 4 storms to make it this far north. We can't really confirm exact intensity, but records exist to show sustained winds in some spots along the Jersey shore at over 135mph. In 1821, there weren't many people living in our area, nor tens of billions of dollars in real estate built up along the ocean's edge. The Great Hurricane of 1903 is recorded as both a Category 3 and 4 storm. Again, with the lack of technology, discrepancies exist. That storm destroyed the railroad bridge that connected Brigantine to the mainland and also took out large portions of the Atlantic City boardwalk.
There are other very strong hurricanes in our history, but I don't want to bore you with the details of each. The point I'm trying to make here is, there have been storms worse than Sandy in intensity and damage (in relative terms). Sandy was the worst storm we've seen in modern times. Strong hurricanes are not new. I know there is hype about an increased number of hurricanes due to climate change, but color me skeptical. No, I'm not a "denier". Climate change is real, but it's important to look at the whole picture. I look at past hurricane seasons and see if there is anything significant that jumps out to me and the answer is not really.
Is our planet getting warmer? Absolutely. There's no denying that. Are storms becoming more intense? Yes and no. Depends on how you're measuring. Storms are WETTER for sure because there is more water vapor in the atmosphere sure! And that obviously leads to more impactful events. We see this with run of the mill thunderstorms these days, more moisture equates to heavier rain. I can look back and pull up facts and figures of storms in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s etc that were just as bad as storms this past decade. Intense hurricanes are not new. They happen and are part of the natural cycle. With the advancement in technology, we are able to measure much more precisely the magnitude of these things, something we weren't able to do several decades ago.
We can also pinpoint exactly where storms are taking shape, something that COULDN'T be done accurately without the technology. Food for thought... how DO we know exactly how many hurricanes were out there BEFORE the satellite era? There were two ways of knowing. 1. a storm made landfall / came very close to the land or 2. a ship encountered a storm directly or closeby. How about the storms that were out there that went unrecorded? We don't have that issue today. Anyway. I'm not trying to be difficult here, I'm just saying there's more to it than some flashy headlines out there. It's important to marry science and history together to get a clearer understanding of what's going on around us.
Everyone and their sister puts out a hurricane forecast. Several universities and of course, NOAA. Folks, this one could be bad. We've already seen TWO tropical storms form BEFORE the start of the season. We may have another early season storm within the next couple days in the Gulf too. It's worrisome for a couple different reasons.
Let's look at the overall Sea Surface Temperature (SST) anomaly. This shows you how the ocean water is doing relative to average temperature.
To the average person looking at this you see a bunch of blues and oranges. It's not very meaningful. I know you understand that orange is warm and blue is cold. So we are on the same page there. It's the POSITION of where those warm and cold areas are that matters most. I want to draw your attention to the west coast of Central / South America. See that well defined area of blue that streaks across your screen? That's where the equator is and that's where we look for changes to the El Nino Southern Oscillation Index (ENSO).
When this area of water is warm, we call it an El Nino which is GOOD for hurricane season. We had that last year. It leads to an increase in vertical shear and makes the environment in the Atlantic less friendly for development of storms. When it's BLUE or neutral, then we have some issues. At the very least, it looks as though going forward we will see a neutral phase. Some reliable model data suggests we could be heading into a formidable La Nina. This shuts down the vertical shear and helps promote the development of storms in the Atlantic basin.
Let's look at this region on a chart
You can CLEARLY see the amount of cooling that has occurred since the Winter. This is for the area of water closest to the coast of South America. A little farther west, shows the same story.
IF this trend holds, and I really don't have any reason to believe it won't, or it will reverse... that just doesn't seem likely. We are being set up for what could be a historic season. I don't use that terminology lightly. It's the POTENTIAL that has me most concerned. The factors are coming together in a way that a well above average season could easily be produced. This year in particular concerns me because of all the issues with the virus. We do NOT need a landfalling storm to further complicate matters.
Let's look at some of the other areas of warm water around the tropics now. First up the Gulf. This is where we usually see the first storms of the season develop. Dying cold fronts often spark them. Look at how warm things are from the Yucatan peninsula points northwest... look at how warm it is around Cuba and Hispaniola. This is where we will be keeping a close eye as we go into June and July.
Farther East into the Atlantic... things are heating up as well. Now, we usually look to this area of the Atlantic later in the season, I'm talking August - October for the longer track storms. Plenty of time for things to change from now until then, but not a good look as of right now. Barring any significant change, I believe there could be several long-track storms this year, which is different than the past couple seasons.
So the verdict?
17 named storms, 7 hurricanes and 5 major (category 3+)
Compared to average, that's a significant increase.
Names for this season:
It's very important to understand that the biggest danger that exists with these storms comes from FLOODING. Everyone gets caught up with wind speed, but most hurricane-related fatalities occur from flooding. Sandy was so impactful because it arrived during a full moon. So moon phase is one of the things we really need to pay close attention to when forecasting these things.
With that said, there is absolutely NO guarantee that our area will see any direct impact whatsoever. But there never is. That's why it's important to have a plan in place as I said at the start of this blog. Typically the worst part of the year for our region in during the peak of the season. Mid August through early October. There are outliers. Look at Sandy. We will continue to watch how the tropics develop and keep a close eye on any storm that ultimately develops.