Fierce hurricane season expected to be 60% above normal could threaten US fight against coronavirus: Experts

The combination of several climate factors is driving the strong likelihood for above-normal activity in the Atlantic this year, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


                            Fierce hurricane season expected to be 60% above normal could threaten US fight against coronavirus: Experts
(Getty Images)
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As the US continues to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, another challenge is set to complicate efforts to contain the outbreak — a fierce hurricane season. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is predicting that there is a 60% chance of an above-normal hurricane season this year. 

The above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is expected because of several climate factors and warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures, according to forecasters with the NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. "The outlook predicts a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season and only a 10% chance of a below-normal season," reads a statement from the NOAA. 

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The Center is forecasting a likely range of 13 to 19 named storms, of which 6 to 10 could become hurricanes, with winds of 119 km/hour (74 mph) or higher, including 3 to 6 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5, with winds of 178 km/hour (111 mph) or higher). "NOAA provides these ranges with a 70% confidence. An average hurricane season produces 12 named storms, of which 6 become hurricanes, including 3 major hurricanes," say experts. 

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Hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms predicted from NOAA's 2020 Atlantic hurricane season outlook (NOAA)

Researchers from the Department of Atmospheric Science at the Colorado State University have also projected that the 2020 Atlantic basin hurricane season will have above-normal activity. The team predicts that the 2020 hurricane activity will be about 140% of the average season. By comparison, 2019's hurricane activity was about 120% of the average season. "We estimate that 2020 will have about 8 hurricanes (average is 6.4), 16 named storms (average is 12.1), 80 named storm days (average is 59.4), 35 hurricane days (average is 24.2), 4 major (category 3-4-5) hurricanes (average is 2.7) and 9 major hurricane days (average is 6.2)," says the study.

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Scientists from NOAA explain there is unlikely to be an El Niño event, which typically suppresses hurricane activity. According to them, warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, coupled with reduced vertical wind shear, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds, and an enhanced west African monsoon all increase the likelihood for an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season. Similar conditions have been producing more active seasons since the current high-activity era began in 1995.

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Each year, storm surge, flooding, extreme winds, tornadoes and lightning associated with hurricanes and tropical cyclones cause destruction and loss of life in the US. With the US currently reporting over 1,643,490 Covid-19 cases and a death toll of more than 97,720 as of May 25, the hurricane season this year is expected to further stretch resources and emergency services already under extreme pressure.

Experts say that the Covid-19 pandemic, with its requirements for social distancing and stay-home measures, also implies that the upcoming hurricane season will be especially challenging. This is because, during a hurricane evacuation, people are expected to evacuate flood-prone coastal communities and move to safer, higher ground, or emergency shelters. But mass evacuation would render social distancing impossible. The standard strategy of relocating displaced people into temporary shelters to escape flooding also spurs the risk of a fresh wave of infections in such settings. The two competing situations will leave counties battling a pandemic and hurricane fall-out simultaneously, according to experts. 

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A list of the 2020 Atlantic tropical cyclone names as selected by the World Meteorological Organization. The first named storm of the season, Arthur, occurred earlier in May before the NOAA's outlook was announced (NOAA)

As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of the country, experts warn it remains critically important to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. Preparing for the hurricane season can never start too early, they emphasize. 

"Social distancing and other CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance to keep you safe from Covid-19 may impact the disaster preparedness plan you had in place, including what is in your go-kit, evacuation routes, shelters and more. With tornado season at its peak, hurricane season around the corner, and flooding, earthquakes and wildfires a risk year-round, it is time to revise and adjust your emergency plan now," says Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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Castillo adds, "Natural disasters won't wait, so I encourage you to keep Covid-19 in mind when revising or making your plan for you and your loved ones and don’t forget your pets. An easy way to start is to download the FEMA app today." These projections amid the coronavirus pandemic also imply that the need for reliable forecasts with longer lead time and coordination disaster management plans are more important than ever before. According to scientists, as storms show signs of developing, NOAA's hurricane hunter aircraft will be prepared to collect data for our forecasters and computer models.

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The NOAA also has plans to upgrade the hurricane-specific Hurricane Weather Research and Forecast system (HWRF) and the Hurricanes in a Multi-scale Ocean coupled Non-hydrostatic model (HMON) models this summer. "HWRF will incorporate new data from satellites and radar from NOAA’s coastal Doppler data network to help produce better forecasts of hurricane track and intensity during the critical watch and warning time frame. HMON will undergo enhancements to include higher resolution, improved physics, and coupling with ocean models," say experts.

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