Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

2017 Hurricane Season: El Niño will decide how active this storm season will be

If forecasters get it right, the 2017 hurricane season will see fewer storms than normal. Those storms will be of lesser intensity. And there will be less chance they'll make landfall.

But if forecasters get it wrong, blame El Niño.

The Pacific weather phenomenon could once again determine how rough the Atlantic hurricane season gets. Will we see a repeat of a very active 2016 storm season, when two destructive storms lashed Florida? Or a return to the sedate decade that preceded last year?

"It's still quite uncertain," said Michael M. Bell, a Colorado State atmospheric sciences professor and coauthor of the university's annual storm forecast. "The ocean temperatures off the coast of South America are already warm, but we have a lot of difficulties predicting whether or not an El Niño will form when we're looking at it in the spring."

El Niño is what scientists call the weather phenomenon of warmer-than-average water temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific. The warmer water creates high-altitude winds that move across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, where most Atlantic hurricanes form, making it harder for storms to form and strengthen.

If El Niño performs as expected in the Pacific, it should tamp down on storm formations in the Atlantic.

Colorado State University's Tropical Meteorology Project has predicted that there will be 11 named storms this year, four hurricanes and two major storms — hurricanes that are Category 3 or higher. Under the Saffir-Simpson measure of wind strength, those are hurricanes with wind s in excess of 111 mph.

Eleven named storms is fewer than the median from the years 1981 to 2010, during which there were 12 named storms, 6.5 hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

The storm season doesn't officially start until June 1 and runs until Nov. 30, yet the Atlantic has already seen its first storm. In April, Tropical Storm Arlene formed east of Bermuda, lasted only three days and did not impact land.

Last year saw an out-of-season hurricane, too, when Hurricane Alex formed in January.

Is that because of climate change? Bell said it's too soon to tell if rising water temperatures are making oceans more conducive to hurricanes forming outside of the traditional June-to-November window. Historically, about 97 percent of cyclones occur during hurricane season, Bell said, meaning roughly one out of every 33 happen out of season.

Florida underwent an unprecedented 11-year hurricane drought, from 2005 to 2016, during which no hurricanes made landfall in the Sunshine State.

That ended in 2016. In September, Hurricane Hermine made landfall in Apalachee Bay as a Category 1 storm, causing an estimated $550 million in damage up and down the Gulf Coast and two deaths.

Weeks later, Hurricane Matthew churned through the Caribbean and zeroed in on the Florida coast as a powerful Category 5 storm, unleashing devastating winds of up to 165mph.

While it never officially made landfall in Florida, it spent several days in October damaging the east coast as a weaker storm. Total U.S. damage was estimated to be roughly $10 billion. There were 585 deaths directly linked to the storm, including 546 in Haiti alone and 34 in the United States, according to the National Hurricane Center.

This year's Colorado State report forecasts a lower-than-average probability of a storm making landfall this year. The chance of a hurricane coming ashore along the U.S. East Coast, including Florida, is 51 percent, according to the forecast. That coast has been struck at least once by a hurricane in 61 of the last 100 years.

The chances of a hurricane striking the Atlantic side of the U.S. coastline — from the Texas-Mexico border to Maine — is 75 percent. Historical data suggests the probability of landfall over the last century was 84 percent.

The reason the predicted landfall probabilities are lower this year, Bell said, is that there are fewer storms forecast.

Another reason for the reduced numbers is the cooler-than-normal water in the northern Atlantic. Like El Niño, Bell said, lower northern Atlantic temperatures contribute to wind sheer, which can also prevent storms from strengthening into hurricanes.

The mild winter, which resulted in warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, shouldn't have much impact, said Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State research scientist and Bell's coauthor. The gulf is always warm, he said, so storms that enter it are likely to strengthen anyway. And, Klotzbach said, most storms don't form in the gulf.

Yet the below-average storm forecast doesn't mean much to local officials. They must prepare the same way every year, Pasco County Emergency Services director Kevin Guthrie said.

There's more to worry about during storm season than just hurricane-force winds. Much of Pasco has found itself under water over the last two summers: in 2015, during record rainfall in the Tampa Bay region and last year because of Hurricane Hermine.

"It doesn't matter how many storms you have in a season, it only takes one," Guthrie said. "We could have a hurricane season with only three named storms, but if just one of those storms comes into the Tampa Bay area, that's a bad day."

The 2015-16 rain events also contributed to sewage spills in Pinellas County and especially in St. Petersburg. The city's overburdened and outdated sewer system released about 200 million gallons of wastewater into neighborhoods and into Tampa Bay.

Guthrie said Florida residents cannot fall into the trap of thinking a below-average forecast means they don't need to prep for storm season.

He recalled 1992, an otherwise below-average season with the huge exception of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that caused $24 billion in damage in 2015 dollars. It is the third-costliest catastrophe in U.S. history, according to Florida International University's International Hurricane Research Center. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was No. 1, and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack was second.

Guthrie outlined three steps people should take to get ready for hurricane season:

First, do the research: Do you live in a flood zone, a storm surge zone or an evacuation zone?

Second, prepare a hurricane kit whether hunkering down for a storm or evacuating to a shelter. You should be prepared to take important paperwork, prescriptions and irreplaceable valuables like family photos with you. You and your family will also need enough food and water to last up to five days until help or more supplies arrive in your area.

Hopefully, the third step doesn't come to pass: Heed evacuation orders and seek shelter. But steps one and two will prepare you for that.

"When we say disasters are local, we don't mean local government," Guthrie said. "We mean the local citizen.

"So it starts with that individual having a plan.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale

When meteorologists refer to hurricanes as a Category 1 or a Category 5 storm, they're using the wind speed scale developed in the 1970s by Herbert Saffir, a Florida engineer, and Robert Simpson, a former director of the National Hurricane Center.

Category 1: 74-95 mph winds

Strong winds are expected to cause damage by whipping storm debris around and toppling trees and power lines. Expect power outages.

Category 2: 96-110 mph winds

These winds will cause extensive damage. Home roofs and siding could be damaged. More trees will be uprooted, blocking more roads. Power outages are a given.

Category 3: 111-129 mph winds

Homes and roofs are at major risk of damage. Trees will be broken. Roads will be blocked. Electricity and water will be out for days afterward.

Category 4: 130-156 mph winds

Expect catastrophic damage that could render some areas uninhabitable for weeks. Roofs and walls will come apart. Power outages will be extensive.

Category 5: 157 mph or higher winds

The most powerful category of hurricanes could level whatever neighborhoods are in its path.

Source: National Hurricane Center.

2017 Atlantic storm names

Arlene

Bret

Cindy

Don

Emily

Franklin

Gert

Harvey

Irma

Jose

Katia

Lee

Maria

Nate

Ophelia

Philippe

Rina

Sean

Tammy

Vince

Whitney

Source:

National Hurricane Center

2017 Hurricane Season: El Niño will decide how active this storm season will be 05/03/17 [Last modified: Monday, May 8, 2017 1:24pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. U.S. teen drug overdose deaths inch up after years of decline

    Health

    NEW YORK — After years of decline, teen deaths from drug overdoses have inched up, a new U.S. government report shows.

    OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. A report found drug overdose deaths among U.S. teens inched up in 2015 after years of decline. The report was released on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [AP (2013)]
  2. UF denies white supremacist Richard Spencer's request to speak on campus

    College

    Citing "serious concerns for campus safety," University of Florida leaders have denied white nationalist Richard Spencer's application to speak on campus next month.

    White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Lee Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering Aug. 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. [Getty Images]
  3. MoviePass now offers unlimited movie watching in theaters for $10 a month, here's what you need to know

    Blogs

    There's now a service that says it will let you watch as many movies as you want for one monthly price: MoviePass. 

    MoviePass will let customers see up to one movie, every day, for $10 a month.
  4. Former Florida prison guards in KKK convicted of plotting to kill a black inmate

    Criminal

    Two former prison guards in Florida who were members of the Ku Klux Klan have been convicted of plotting to kill a black inmate in retaliation for a scuffle with another guard who also belonged to the hate group.

    A jury in Columbia County found David Elliot Moran, left, and Charles Thomas Newcomb guilty of conspiracy to commit first degree murder after they were caught discussing their plans to kill a black inmate in retaliation for a scuffle with another guard who, like them, belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. [Alachua County Jail via AP (2015)]
  5. Jameis Winston's subtle but strong moment of leadership displayed on 'Hard Knocks'

    Bucs

    Quarterback Jameis Winston went to each teammate in the locker room prior to the Bucs' preseason opener Friday at Cincinnati with one message: 'I got your back.'

    Then he proved it.

    Jameis Winston sarcastically tells offensive linemen James Stone and James Harrison he's glad glad they're having fun while quarterback Ryan Griffin is being attended to in the locker room by the Bucs medical staff. [HBO/NFL FILMS]