The United States is likely facing an above-average hurricane season, with the prospect of unprecedented challenges if storms make landfall while officials are still scrambling to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in its annual hurricane forecast released last week.
While there is still a 10% chance of a below-average hurricane season, “the NOAA outlook calls for a 60% likelihood of an above-average season, with a 70% chance of 13 to 19 named storms, six to 10 of which will become hurricanes,” the Washington Post reports. “Three to six of those could become major hurricanes of Category 3 intensity or higher, and there is a chance that the season will become ‘extremely active’, the agency said.”
The Post says an average hurricane season “produces 12 named storms and six hurricanes, three of which intensify into major hurricanes”. The new estimate “comes after a slew of private sector hurricane outlooks also have predicted an above-average season,” the paper adds.
Although the Atlantic hurricane season official starts June 1, the first named storm, Tropical Storm Arthur, formed in the first half of May.
NOAA’s assessment is based on “several factors, including an above-average West African monsoon season, below-average wind shear across the Atlantic, and an absence of an El Niño event in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can stifle Atlantic hurricane activity,” the Post explains. It also reflects unusually mild sea surface temperatures for this time of year in much of the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea—a significant factor, given the role of warm ocean waters in feeding hurricanes—and recent projections for a possible La Niña event developing in the tropical Pacific, which can also influence the Atlantic basin.
Reinforcing the NOAA projection, the Post says forecasters at Colorado State University are calling for 16 named storms and eight hurricanes, four of them major, with “above average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States”. State College, Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather expects 14 to 18 named storms, while seasonal forecasters at Penn State University are “predicting one of the most active Atlantic tropical seasons on record”.
The higher-end storms produce the most damage, and “climate change research, including a study published on Monday [May 18], has found an increased likelihood of major tropical cyclones as the world warms,” the Post adds. “Other studies have shown that storms may be approaching and moving over land more slowly, which worsens their impacts, and there is robust scientific agreement that they are producing more rainfall as ocean and air temperatures increase.”
The almost certain overlap between the hurricane season and the pandemic will likely leave the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) facing “a challenge that is unparalleled in its history,” the Post writes. “The agency historically has dealt with multiple hurricanes and floods, notably during the 2005 hurricane season, when three hurricanes struck Florida within weeks of each other. But it has not had to address a pandemic at the same time as a regional crisis like a hurricane.”
Carlos Castillo, FEMA’s acting deputy administrator for resilience, is already advising coastal residents to start planning for a coastal storm or hurricane now, adding that plans are being developed to ensure physical distancing at evacuation centres. “If you are in an evacuation zone and you are evacuated, you should plan to go, maybe to friends who are outside the evacuation zone,” he said.