Meteorologists predict 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes, with four hitting Cat 3 or higher.
The Atlantic hurricane season kicks off on June 1 and runs through the end of November. Predicting how the season will unfold is a lot like picking a Super Bowl winner before the regular season starts. There are a bunch of indicators you can look at and do your best to pick a winner, but getting it exactly right is far from an exact science. After all, it’s weather we’re talking about. But the main indicators all point to an above-average season, so boaters along the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean should have a storm plan in place and make sure their boat insurance is up to date.
The biggest factor forecasters look at when predicting the formation of strong hurricanes is the presence of El Niño, a natural warming of the central tropical Pacific, which tends to occur in four-year cycles.
“When we have an El Niño it tends to produce a lot of strong wind shear over the Atlantic, and wind shear is the enemy of tropical storms. It blows them apart and storms can weaken or dissipate,” says Tim Armstrong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “What we are looking at for 2020 is the opposite of El Niño, La Niña, which is where we see less wind shear and a favorable situation for more tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic.”
A second factor is water temperature. Warm water provides the fuel that storms need to grow. Surface temps in the Gulf of Mexico and most of the Atlantic are above normal right now. That’s not a good sign. A third factor that meteorologists look at are rain levels in the Sahel region of Africa, located between the tropical rainforest and the Sahara Desert. This is where Atlantic hurricanes originate. Large thunderstorms that blow up there move westward into the open ocean and become tropical waves.
“In a drought there will be fewer thunderstorms in the Sahel region and less water available to feed those storms,” Armstrong says. “Well, I checked, and it’s had well above normal rainfall since January. If that maintains into the heart of hurricane season, it could increase the threat for a lot of Atlantic activity.”
For the past 37 years, a group of forecasters and weather professors at Colorado State University (CSU) have issued a forecast for the Atlantic hurricane season, which they update several times over the summer. For 2020, the CSU team predicts 16 named storms, including eight named hurricanes. Of the named hurricanes, it says four may reach major hurricane strength (Saffir/Simpson category 3, 4 or 5) with sustained winds of 111 mph or greater.
CSU looks at the same indicators that Armstrong mentions and runs a slew of data through dynamic models from European weather offices. The models also look at sea level pressures and vertical wind shear. The CSU team maintains a website that displays landfall probabilities for the Caribbean, East Coast and Gulf of Mexico coast.
The good news for boaters is that hurricane models and forecasts are much improved and typically provide enough time to move out of harm’s way. In 2007, the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP) was created within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reduce track and intensity forecast errors by 20 percent within five years and 50 percent within 10 years. It also extended forecasts out to seven days by investing in better science and use of oceanographic, aircraft and satellite observations. The result of the HFIP’s work will save lives and give boaters more time to make a move as a hurricane develops.
But for anyone that lives and boats along a potential point of landfall, it only takes one major storm to make your season an active one. Prepare by stocking up on needed items like extra lines and anchors and make sure you have a plan in place should a storm head your way.