Two clashing climate giants, one natural and the other with human fingerprints, will face off this summer to determine how calm or chaotic the Atlantic hurricane season will be.
An El Nino is brewing and the natural weather event significantly dampens hurricane activity. But at the same time, record-breaking ocean heat is bubbling up in the Atlantic, partly fueled by human-induced climate change from burning coal, oil and gas, and it provides fuel boosts for storms.
Many forecasters don’t know which weather titan will prevail, as the scenario has never happened before on this scale. Most of them expect a near draw – something average. And that includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saying there’s a 40% chance of a near-normal season, 30% chance of an above-average season (more storms than usual) and 30% chance of a sub-par season.
The federal agency announced Thursday its forecast of 12 to 17 named storms, with five to nine becoming hurricanes and one to four becoming major hurricanes with winds above 110 mph. The normal is 14 named storms, seven of which become hurricanes and three of them major hurricanes.
“It’s really a rare pattern for this year. That’s why our odds aren’t 60% or 70%,” NOAA seasonal hurricane forecaster Matthew Rosencrans told a news conference. Thursday. “There is a lot of uncertainty this year.”
No matter how many storms there are, forecasters and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Deanne Criswell reminded US coastal residents from Texas to New England and people in the Caribbean and Central America that it only takes one hurricane to be a disaster if it hits you.
“It really comes down to who is going to win or do they just cancel each other out and you end up with an almost normal season?” said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. “I respect them both.”
The two forces could not be more opposite.
El Nino is a natural temporary warming of the Pacific that occurs every few years and changes the weather around the world. Climate models predict that the world is getting warmer, El Ninos is getting stronger.
Decades of observation show the Atlantic is generally calmer with fewer storms during the El Nino years. The warmer waters of El Niño causing warmer air over the Pacific to reach higher into the atmosphere, influencing winds and creating strong upper-level winds that can decapitate storms, killing them, Klotzbach said. This is called wind shear.
El Nino’s effects aren’t direct, and “it’s not as direct as a very warm ocean,” said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. El Nino and its variations are the most important annual factor in NOAA forecasts, accounting for up to 38% of its forecast, Rosencrans said.
The Atlantic, particularly hugging the far eastern African coast where storms form, is about 1.8 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 2 degrees Celsius) warmer than the average for the past 30 years. and is the hottest it’s been for this time of year, Klotzbach said. The warm Atlantic waters not only make the storms stronger and more able to withstand El Nino shear, but they create an upper-level wind from the opposite direction that could counterbalance El Nino.
“It’s starting to overtake 2010 by a decent margin, which is sobering because 2010 was very hot,” Klotzbach said.
“Abnormally warm ocean temperatures undoubtedly have a human footprint,” said former NOAA hurricane scientist Jim Kossin, now of risk firm The Climate Service.
Scientists don’t even have past years that look alike to help figure out what’s next, Klotzbach and McNoldy said.
So who will win between El Nino and the warm oceans?
“I know it’s not a satisfying answer to say ‘we just don’t know,’ but we don’t know,” said Kristen Corbosiero, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Albany.
The pioneer in the field, the state of Colorado, predicts 13 named storms slightly below normal, six hurricanes, two of which will become major. Nearly two dozen private, academic, and government forecasting teams and models, except a handful, forecast a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season with between six and eight hurricanes.
But they also hedge their bets.
“AccuWeather is expecting a near normal to slightly below normal season due to the onset of El Nino,” said AccuWeather Senior Hurricane Forecaster Dan Kottlowski, who then added that the he warm Atlantic complicated everything. “Due to the extent of the warm water, there is still a higher than normal chance of a high-impact hurricane affecting the United States this season.”
The University of Arizona looks at the same two forces clashing and sees a different outcome, predicting nine higher-than-normal hurricanes, 19 named storms, and five major hurricanes, as it expects “the side Atlantic is dominant, leading to a very active season,” said Xubin Zeng, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona.
Forecasters ran out of names during a record 30 named storms in the Atlantic in 2020 and with 21 storms in 2021. Last year was normal. Earth had a the girl over the past three years, which generally increases hurricane activity in the Atlantic. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30.
McNoldy said this summer could be calmer in the Caribbean where El Nino shear may have more influence, but busier in Bermuda and on the U.S. east coast north of the Caribbean, where El Nino n is not as powerful.
Chance plays an important role, Kossin said: “It’s kind of like rolling dice, but with the addition (warm ocean) and subtraction (El Nino) of weights to the dice.”
The warmer Pacific has forecasters expecting a “near to above normal” hurricane season for waters around Hawaii, said Chris Brenchley, director of the Central Pacific Hurricane Center. That equates to four to seven tropical cyclones in the region, but fewer could actually land on the islands.
Associated Press writer Audrey McAvoy contributed from Honolulu.
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