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Jordan Candler / October 30, 2020

Perspective on a Doozy of a Hurricane Season

An unusually active tropical season doesn’t invariably portend climate doomsday.

The Atlantic Basin hurricane season doesn’t wrap up until November 30, which leaves plenty of time for another storm or two. (That appears likely, by the way, so be forewarned). We are, however, close enough to the end of the season that we can begin to judge the results. Without question, we can say 2020 has been a doozy of a hurricane season, which got busy early and shows signs of ending late.

According to meteorologist and hurricane expert Philip Klotzbach, a record 11 named storms have made landfall on the continental U.S. this hurricane season. The previous record of nine landfalling storms occurred more than a century ago in 1916. So far, 27 named storms have formed in the Atlantic Basin during the 2020 season. Because the World Meteorological Organization’s predetermined list consists of just 21 names, that means we’ve had plenty enough activity to necessitate the implementation of the Greek alphabet, which serves as a “backup” list for rare seasons such as this.

So, yes, you’d be correct to assume that using the Greek alphabet for hurricanes is unusual. In fact, 2005 featured the only other hurricane season in which the Greek alphabet was used.

Most will recall that 2005 was likewise a doozy of a hurricane season. A record 28 storms formed in the Atlantic Basin that year, though 2020 seems destined to either tie or supersede that record. From this standpoint alone, the 2020 season should be considered exceptional.

However, a few additional aspects must be taken into account, particularly since some alarmists are invariably blaming the severity of the season on anthropogenic global warming.

Seasonal influence. Even before the hurricane season began, meteorological enterprises in both the private and public sectors were virtually unanimous in forecasting a busy season. Their agreement was at least partially rooted in pattern recognition. A La Niña event — wherein cool water around the equatorial Pacific Ocean affects weather patterns — developed earlier this year, and history shows us these events typically foreshadow a busy hurricane season.

This warning sign was buoyed by computer guidance projecting other atmospheric elements conjoining to provide an extremely conducive environment for hurricane development. Warm water in itself isn’t enough to produce an unusually high number of hurricanes. Atmospheric “triggers,” such as sinking air over the Atlantic that suppresses wind (which in turn mitigates wind shear) and a favorable Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), are also required. On rare occasions, all of the ingredients align in almost perfect fashion. And, à la 2005, that’s exactly what happened in 2020.

Of course, the number of storms alone has many climate doomsayers heading for the fainting couch. But meteorologist Joe Bastardi thinks not only that global warming is natural but that it results in a lowering of barometric pressure at higher latitudes. This in turn distorts the surface pattern elsewhere and changes the global wind oscillation, both of which may be affecting the intensity of long-tracked storms, meaning they actually aren’t as strong overall as they are near the coast. (More on storm intensity below.) Conversely, he does also note that, given the right conditions, hurricanes that form close to land may indeed feed off the warmer ocean waters, which is why his company, WeatherBELL Analytics, was bullish on a high-impact year.

We’d also be remiss not to mention the astounding hurricane lull we experienced after the 2005 hurricane onslaught.

Technology. When all is said and done, 2005 and 2020 will hold the first- and second-place records (the order is still to be determined) for named storms. However, note that both of these years also fall in the satellite era (1965 and after). Pre-satellite-era hurricane archives aren’t necessarily inaccurate, but neither are they necessarily complete. To pretend as if we know exactly what all transpired during the hurricane season of, say, 1885 is like arguing that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in for the 2016 election. You might think you know, but you never actually know. There are variables that we sometimes cannot see.

Overly ambitious on naming storms. This hurricane season, in addition to past years, featured a few named storms that had meteorologists scratching their heads. This was due to the fact that these “fish” storms, as they’re known, were named based on satellite presentation. The biggest problem with this method is that it risks the likelihood of unnecessarily inflating the number of storms in any given season. Because they often lack airplane reconnaissance, there’s a strong possibility that some of these oftentimes pathetic- and ragged-looking storms out in the middle of the ocean may fall under the actual tropical-naming threshold. This becomes even more of an issue in seasons like this when records and messaging are on the line.

Energy index isn’t all that impressive. Meteorologists use what’s called Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) to estimate the severity of a hurricane season in its totality. In an average year, storms generate an ACE index of roughly 95. To date, we’re in the neighborhood of 140. That’s a very big number, but it’s far below the 1933 record of approximately 259. Even the 2005 ACE index of 250 is considerably more than what we have so far in 2020. Furthermore, according to Bastardi, this season’s tropical systems are generating an average ACE index of just under 6. In the 1950s, the average was over 10 per storm. Amazingly, hurricanes during the 1926 season averaged an ACE of over 20. There were fewer storms during these timeframes, but they were also more intense. Keep in mind too that while we’re experiencing more storms in the 21st century, many of them are developing in the middle of the ocean, posing little or no threat to land.

Current major hurricane landfalls are historically infrequent. A major hurricane is defined as Category 3 or higher. Believe it or not, we’ve witnessed just four major hurricane hits this decade, which is tied for the lowest number in the last 100 years.

The bottom line is that we would all be wise to treat this season as nothing more than what it is: unusually active, but not an omen.

Update: This article originally stated that Florida was Ground Zero in 2005, but that’s not an accurate claim. Hurricane Katrina, while causing extensive damage in Florida first, went on to obliterate New Orleans and adjacent areas, ultimately producing a mind-boggling $125 billion in damage and nearly 2,000 deaths. Hurricane Wilma substantially affected Florida in 2005 as well, but 2004 is the more memorable season for residents of that state, who had to suffer through four major hurricane landfalls. The original statement has been stricken for clarity.

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