If it seems like we’ve seen more bad hurricanes and tropical storms in the U.S. in recent years than usual, it just that – a perception, not reality.
So says Jeff Johnson, a certified consulting meteorologist to Schneider Electric who recently hosted a webinar on the outlook for hurricanes in 2014. The upshot, he says, is that 2014 shouldn’t be a terribly bad year – but there are caveats; and some of them are big ones.
First, a little history. Meteorologists have been collecting hurricane data for 160 years, so we’ve got plenty of numbers to work with. And they say that, on average, 9.7 tropical storms form each year. In recent years, the number has been closer to 11, he says, but only because we now have satellites to detect weaker storms that remain over the ocean.
Of those, about 6 become hurricanes, with September being the peak month, followed closely by August and October. In terms of how many hurricanes strike the U.S. each year, nearly 30% of years see one hurricane while 23% see two and 19% of years don’t see any hurricanes.
Johnson thinks this year will be statistically light because it will be an El Niño year – and the right kind of El Niño, no less. El Niño is characterized by warm water that extends from the international dateline in the Pacfic Ocean to the South American coast. But meteorologists have fairly recently discovered that sometimes the warm water doesn’t quite reach the coast, staying out in the Pacific instead. When the water does reach the coast, known as a “full basin” El Niño, it reduces the number of storms that are likely to form along the Gulf of Mexico and the Southern coast of Florida – which are the two areas that historically see the most hurricanes.
“This year we do expect it to be a full basin El Niño so that will reduce the number of storms that develop in the Atlantic Ocean,” Johnson says.
That’s the good news. The bad news? “We’re statistically way overdue for a major hurricane landfall in the United States,” he says. Incredible as it may seem, it’s been more than 8 years since we’ve last seen a category 3 or above hurricane make landfall in the U.S. “That’s a record stretch going back over 160 years,” Johnson says.
I’ll leave you with one bit of Johnson’s advice. Even in years with conditions that are not favorable to the formation of hurricanes, we’ve seen major ones make landfall in the U.S., he says. “So don’t let your guard down.”