HomeScience & TechNorth Atlantic Coast Communities Brace for Intense Hurricane Season

North Atlantic Coast Communities Brace for Intense Hurricane Season

Communities along America’s North Atlantic coast are preparing for an exceptionally severe hurricane season. As the climate crisis continues to escalate, tropical cyclones are forming earlier and growing in both frequency and intensity. Experts at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predict an unprecedented number of named storms this year, with up to 25 potential cyclones by year-end.

This year’s hurricane season, which runs from June through November with a peak in late summer, has an 85 percent chance of being exceptionally extreme. Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami, describes the situation as a “perfect storm.” He explains, “El Niño, which typically increases vertical wind shear in the Atlantic and suppresses hurricane formation, is ending. Transitioning to La Niña conditions in the Pacific, coupled with warm Atlantic ocean temperatures, creates ideal conditions for hurricanes.”

The World Meteorological Association uses one of six rotating lists of 21 names for Atlantic cyclones that feature wind speeds above 63 kilometers per hour (39 miles per hour). If these winds breach 119 kph (74 mph), the storm is categorized as a hurricane. Major hurricanes are those with winds exceeding 178 kph (111 mph). In 2020 and 2021, the number of storms exceeded the list of names before the seasons ended.

In 2022, the number of named storms was average, but their severity made it the third costliest Atlantic season on record. The following year was the fourth most active, though many storms did not make landfall. This year, NOAA predicts there will be 17 to 25 named storms. Out of these, scientists believe as many as 13 could become hurricanes, including 4 to 7 major hurricanes.

Brian McNoldy, a tropical cyclone expert at the University of Miami, notes that El Niño might have suppressed hurricane formation in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in previous years. “But that probably won’t hold for this year,” he adds. Since 1935, only four Category 5 hurricanes (with winds over 252 kph) have made landfall in the US, all from storms that were not declared hurricanes until just three days before hitting the coast.

Predicting which named storms will develop into intense hurricanes and make landfall is extremely challenging but crucial for saving lives and infrastructure. Last year, for instance, the Category 5 hurricane that hit Acapulco, Mexico, defied meteorologists’ predictions and wreaked havoc. Researchers at NOAA and several US universities are working to improve these models for better accuracy.

“It’s sort of like finding why grandma’s cookies taste so good,” explains oceanographer Lynn “Nick” Shay from the University of Miami. “We know what some of those ingredients are. But what are the correct ratios of the ingredients? No one really knows.”

This hurricane season, NOAA is trialing two new hurricane forecast models. The hope is that these systems will perform better than they did last year, providing communities along the North Atlantic coast with the information they need to prepare and protect themselves from the devastating impacts of these powerful storms.

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