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Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria: No, the 2017 hurricane season is not normal

Sept. 8: Tropical Storm Katia, from left, Hurricane Irma and Jose, not yet a hurricane. Nine days later, Maria would become a hurricane.
Published Sep. 20, 2017

It was only 27 days ago that Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

You could be forgiven for thinking it's been longer. After all, that was four hurricanes ago.

We crunched the numbers and talked to an expert, and it's not your imagination: The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been unusually active.

"This season has been an overachiever by almost every index," said Bob Henson, a meteorologist for Weather Underground, a forecasting service. "We've had more than a year's worth of named storms when you look at the long-term average, and that's being just past the midpoint of the season."

There have been 13 named storms this year. Only four other seasons since 1995 have had that many by Sept. 18. Just two more by the end of the year would put 2017 in the top 15 since 1851, when reliable records begin.

That almost certainly will happen.

"I would be shocked if we didn't get at least two more," Henson said.

Of the 13 named storms so far in 2017, seven have been hurricanes, a number matched or exceeded at this point in the season only four times since 1995. Four — Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria — have reached Category 3 or higher, the threshold for a major hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Also of note:

Only five other seasons since 1995 have had that many by Sept. 18.

Irma held its Category 5 status with 185-mph winds for a record 37 hours.

Jose holds the record as the longest-lived hurricane this season. Now a tropical storm, it remains off the East Coast, 16 days after being named.

And Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico early Wednesday morning? The storm's explosive intensification from Category 1 to Category 5 took just 15 hours.

More named storms have developed in the first 3 1/2 months of the six-month hurricane season than developed in the entirety of the 1997, 1999, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2014 or 2015 seasons, according to National Hurricane Center and Weather Underground data. "We're running at about twice the pace of a typical season," Henson said.

A few caveats are in order. August, September and October are almost always the peak of the season, and it isn't uncommon for several storms to develop on each other's heels, as Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee and Maria did from Aug. 17 to Sept. 16. And the phrase "above average" loses some of its significance when 10 of the 15 most active hurricane seasons since antebellum America have occurred in the past two decades.

What stands out is the combination of frequency and intensity. It may not be unheard-of for six storms to develop in a month, but it is very unusual for two Category 4 and two Category 5 hurricanes to do so.

It is also extremely unusual for three major hurricanes to pass through the same region in three weeks, as Irma, Jose and Maria have in the northeastern Caribbean.

The last time the northern Leeward Islands experienced two major hurricanes in the same season was 1899, and now it is three — in the same month. Residents of some islands barely had time to assess the wreckage of a Cat 5 hurricane before another bore down. Others fled to escape Irma, only to find themselves in the cross hairs of Maria.

A full reckoning of 2017's place in hurricane history isn't possible until the season ends on Nov. 30, but there are a few things we can say with reasonable confidence:

It will almost certainly be the most expensive season on record in the U.S. That distinction, like most others, currently belongs to 2005, when Katrina and three other major hurricanes caused more than $143.5 billion of damage in the U.S. this year, AccuWeather estimated that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma might cost a combined $290 billion: two storms producing double the economic damage of four in 2005.

It probably won't be the most active season on record. That dubious distinction belongs, by a large margin, to 2005 and its 28 named storms, which exhausted the World Meteorological Organization's yearly list of 21 names and forced officials to dip into the Greek alphabet for the first time. Fifteen of the storms (another record) were hurricanes, including seven (second place, behind 1950) Category 3 or higher. Five names (yet another record) were retired: Dennis, Rita, Stan, Wilma and, of course, Katrina. The 2017 season is unlikely to match that.

But it will most likely be near the top. Currently, the 1933 season, with 20 named storms, sits in second place after 2005. Behind that are five seasons that produced 19 named storms apiece, one that produced 18, three that had 16 and four that had 15, according to Weather Underground, which maintains a list of the "top 10 busiest Atlantic hurricane seasons." By the end of November, that list will almost certainly include 2017.

Henson said he would not be surprised if 2017 were the second year to run through the alphabet, which would mean at least 21 named storms. (Hurricanes do not begin with Q, U, X, Y or Z.)

And even if it doesn't get quite that far, he said, "the intensity of the activity this year will put it in the pantheon of our most active years regardless of what happens from here outward."

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