This Year’s Hurricane Season Is Off The Charts – And Not Over Yet

This year has seen many bad records broken when it comes to climate-driven severe weather. We are now several letters into the Greek alphabet for storm names having reached this point (23 so far) for only the second time since storm names began.  The Washington Post reported that there have been a record 9 named storms to make landfall (tied with 1916), 5 names storms “brewing” at once, a zombie storm — Paula — that is making the rounds as a tropical storm for the second time now, and nearly the entire East Coast and Gulf of Mexico coastlines under a tropical storm or hurricane advisory at some point.  Bleep!  It’s not even October yet.

Why This Matters:  The number of storms is not just a fun fact — it is devastating for the tens of thousands of people whose homes flooded (count me – Monica – in on that), who have spent significant amounts of time without power and perhaps even running water, who have evacuated and been exposed to the risk of contracting coronavirus as a result, and for which there will not be nearly enough federal assistance to help them recover.  It will cost billions of dollars to repair the damage.  And Trump’s pick to be NOAA’s new Chief Scientist does not believe that these severe storms are connected to climate change — more climate denial just when it seems to be undeniable.

Why Is This Happening?

The La Niña effect is the short answer.  La Niñas tend to increase the odds of hurricanes in the Atlantic because of the impact they have on the eastern tropical Pacific, which is cooler in these years ant that tends to reduce the wind shear that can impede Atlantic hurricane formation.  But super warm water in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico has provided an added boost of energy to the storms to get them started or to give them more punch quickly.  Still, we have had some good luck too because so far the worst storms have not hit super populous areas (though if it hit you, it was bad luck).  Where they make landfall is a bit random and so even though things have been bad, given the sheer number of storms it could have been worse.

What Will Happen Now?

The tracks of storms in October have tended to be a bit different than the ones that hit earlier in the season.  Up until Hurricane Sally, Florida had not seen much action, but the sunshine state tends to get hit later in the season.  According to The Weather Channel, “from 1851 to 2019, 33 hurricanes made a Florida landfall in October, dwarfing Louisiana, the state with the second-highest number of October landfalls, with 10.”  Of the 18 major storms (Category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale – see below) that made landfall in October, 11 made landfall in Florida.  And The Weather Channel points out that since 2016, some very destructive storms — hurricanes Matthew, Nate, and Michael — made landfall in the first half of October.  Most years there is only one hurricane that forms in October — hopefully, this year will be the same. Even if it goes out quietly, this year’s hurricane season is likely a “catastrophic” turning point, as meteorologist Eric Holthaus warns in MediumHolthaus points out that “At no point in the 170 years of Atlantic basin weather history have so many strong storms formed so quickly.”

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

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