As residents living near the Atlantic keep a watchful eye on Hurricane Maria, the recent onslaught of storms this year has East Coast residents wondering if there’s an end.
“For reelz?” said Timothy Strickland on social media, after posting the National Hurricane Center’s predicted path for Maria. His comment prompted responses ranging from “I know, right?” to “Every year, man, every year.” This year, however, Strickland and his fellow doomsday criers are right.
Normally, the Atlantic sees 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes. Two of those six are typically Category 3, 4, or 5. This year, however, with roughly 10 weeks left in the season, 13 named storms have already been produced, seven of which have become hurricanes. Four of them — Harvey, Irma, José, and Maria — have been Category 3 or higher.
By Sept. 21 in a normal year, the Atlantic would have seen only four hurricanes, one of which would have been a Category 3 or higher. Only four other seasons since 1995 have had as many by this date as 2017 has.
This year’s active season was predicted by climatologists, thanks in part to a weak El Niño system. When El Niño is strong, the wind shear typically serves to suppress the development of Atlantic hurricanes, so a weak system favors increased storm production. That situation, combined with normal or above-normal water surface temperatures — hurricanes need water temperatures above 79ºF to “feed” their output — had the National Hurricane Center sending out reports in May to prepare for a rough season.
Despite the warning, the season has taken many off guard. While it may not be unheard of to see six storms during the most active portion of the season — such as what the Atlantic has experienced between Aug. 21 and Sept. 21 — it is unusual for two Category 4 hurricanes and two Category 5 storms to form within 30 days. Equally unlikely is the chance for three major hurricanes to pass through the same region within a month, as have Irma, José, and Maria in the Caribbean.
The U.S. will pay, literally, for the increase in storms. Thus far, Harvey and Irma alone have cost upwards of $290 billion, already double the Atlantic’s most expensive season for the U.S. The previous record-holder was 2005, when Katrina and three other storms resulted in $141 billion in damage, according to National Hurricane Center data.
While this year’s hurricane season probably won’t be the most active — a distinction that belongs to 2005, which saw 28 named storms, 15 of them hurricanes — the possibility of climbing near the top of list of busiest hurricane seasons exists. One more major hurricane would add the year to the National Hurricane Center list of 18 seasons with the most major hurricanes, and one more named storm would put this year in the top 17 of the busiest tropical storm seasons. Five more hurricanes would be needed to make the list of the top 19 busiest hurricane seasons.
North Carolina sees her fair share of those storms. According to the North Carolina State Climatology Office, the Tar Heel State is hit by a tropical storm, on average, about every four years. The state ranks fourth in the nation — behind Florida, Louisiana, and Texas — in number of storms, which climatologists attribute to the state’s topography and shape.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.