‘Tis the Season for Hurricanes: Keeping an Eye on the Tropics
As the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season approaches, the tropics are starting to light up, right on schedule.
What do Sandy, Irene, Floyd, Gloria, and Doria have in common?
Correct! They were all memorable hurricanes and tropical storms that had serious, fatal impacts in New Jersey. (Yes, technically, Sandy became "extratropical" just before landfall.)
But we can go a step further: All five storms occurred between late August and October, the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season.
Prime Hurricane Season
Officially, hurricane season begins June 1 and ends on November 30 for the Atlantic basin (which includes the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean Sea). Admittedly, it's an arbitrary window of time, as Mother Nature doesn't own a calendar. It does represent the period of time during which the National Hurricane Center in Miami ramps up their seasonal operations. While named tropical storms can form outside of this warm weather window, it is rare.
Drilling down further, statistics show a distinct uptick in hurricane activity within the Atlantic season, occurring between about August 20 and October 20. The peak day of the season, on average, is September 10.
This time frame holds true for New Jersey hurricanes as well. According to a tally on Wikipedia's list of New Jersey hurricanes page, approximately 85% of all tropical systems to impact New Jersey occurred between August and October. In fact, the only significant New Jersey tropical storm I can recall outside of late August, September, and October was Hurricane Agnes in June 1972.
It makes sense. Ocean water temperatures are at the warmest point of the year. That warm water is a very important ingredient for the formation and strengthening of tropical storms and hurricanes.
In addition, weather patterns around late summer/early autumn favor "Cape Verde" hurricanes. These long-track storms develop from waves of tropical moisture pushing west off the African coast over the Cape Verde islands.
The 2016 Hurricane Season: Past and Future
I'd call this a relatively quiet hurricane season so far, with only 7 named storms (and counting): Alex in January; Bonnie, Colin, and Danielle in June; and Earl, Fiona, and Gaston in August (so far). Only Bonnie and Colin directly impacted the United States.
The official 2016 seasonal forecast from the National Hurricane Center calls for a grand total of 12 to 17 named storms, including 5 to 8 hurricanes packing at least 74 mph winds. So all signs point toward the atmosphere and ocean firing up as the climax of the tropical season approaches.
An Eye on the Tropics
Lo and behold, the tropics have caught fire, right on schedule. As of this writing, there are three systems of note in the Atlantic Ocean:
--Tropical Depression Fiona: Once a healthy tropical storm, Fiona has since disintegrated into a lowly tropical depression. As it passes several hundred miles south of Bermuda, Fiona is expected to further weaken, potentially losing its tropical characteristics by Thursday. The remnants of Fiona could still have direct or indirect impacts on the U.S. East Coast, so it is worth watching.
--Tropical Storm Gaston: Nearly 2,500 miles southeast of Bermuda as of Tuesday morning, Gaston is forecast to grow into a category 1 hurricane by early Wednesday morning. The current forecast turns Gaston to the northwest and out to sea.
--Disturbance: We are also monitoring a somewhat disorganized cluster of thunderstorms just east of the Lesser Antilles. The National Hurricane Center has posted a 60% chance of this system developing into a tropical storm by Thursday. If so, the next name on the list is Hermine. The latest forecast models show an unfavorable environment for further development though, keeping the storm rather disorganized as it drifts toward the Bahamas and Florida coast.
A Word of Caution
Not only is this the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, it is the peak of the hurricane hype season. On almost a daily basis, one of the major forecast models paints a hurricane smacking into the United States in the 10 to 14 day range. It literally appears in the long-range forecast every day.
And so, inevitably, an armchair meteorologist or pseudo-journalist will post raw model output to social media as a definitive forecast. Ugh.
Weather forecasts are rarely accurate beyond 5 to 7 days. That uncertainty is especially relevant for hurricane track and intensity forecasts, which can be incredibly volatile even just a few days before landfall.
Please don't play into the hype machine. Be leery believing and sharing any forecast information from unreliable sources, which may post hurricane forecasts several days or weeks in advance. It's not a helpful heads-up - it's inaccurate, and inciting panic.
If there's a storm that could impact New Jersey in any way, I promise you'll be the first to know.