Weathering the Storm

Forecasters predicted an aggressive hurricane season for 2022, but with a peaceful August passing without a notable storm, what lies ahead for this season—and what does our changing climate tell us about the future?

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In May of this year when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center predicted a more active hurricane season than usual, they had good reason for their forecast. Of the many factors that can contribute to an active storm season, this year NOAA cited a persistent La Niña weather system (which suppresses Pacific water temperatures), weaker tropical trade winds in the Atlantic, enhanced West African monsoon activity and warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Taken all together, these factors have led to some of the most active Atlantic storm seasons—and seeded some of the East Coast's most memorable and devastating storms.

And yet, as of September 1, 2022, the East Coast had yet to experience a notable storm so far, marking an unusually inactive first half of hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through November 30 every year. In fact, this August was the first since 1997 with no major Atlantic storm activity. So, are the experts off the mark? Or are storms—and the conditions that create them—changing? Let's take a look at how hurricanes form, what's going on and what these conditions can tell us about what lies ahead.

What is a Hurricane?

According to NOAA, a hurricane—also known as a tropical cyclone—is a rotating, organized system of clouds and thunderstorms that originates over tropical or subtropical waters and has closed, low-level circulation. In other words, hurricanes are thunderstorms that form over warm tropical waters and expand exponentially. Their spiral wind patterns suck heat and moisture upward and inward from the ocean, which warms throughout the summer months. This warm moisture acts as an energy source for the storm, allowing it to grow, picking up speed and moisture until it is literally a force to be reckoned with. A tropical storm is officially a hurricane when its power reaches sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or more. A storm's speed and size are what allow meteorologists to determine its category, from 1 through 5.

While we are all familiar with the wrath of hurricanes as they make landfall, many active storms remain over the ocean where they intensify or lessen based upon wind conditions and ocean temperatures. Storms that do make landfall almost always slow without the ocean to power them, but sometimes not fast enough to prevent damaging winds, waves and water surges from wreaking havoc.

What is Going On This Year?

The science of forecasting storms takes into consideration so many uncontrollable variables that there is really no such thing as a perfect forecast. That said, global weather-monitoring technology has advanced to allow meteorologists a relatively impressive degree of accuracy in sharing their predictions with wary East Coast storm watchers. Calculating back to 1991, an average hurricane season features 14 named storms with winds of at least 39 miles per hour, seven total hurricanes, and three major hurricanes of category 3 or worse. This year's storm predictions included up to 21 named storms, with up to 10 hurricanes and as many as six storms of category 3, 4 or 5. So where are the storms? And are they still coming?

Scientists tell us that the missing ingredient so far this season is moisture. Drier-than-average air at 10,000 to 20,000 feet above the Earth's surface has made it impossible for thunderstorms that did form to gain momentum and grow into larger storms. This year has also seen higher-than-average wind shear, which is the change of wind speed and strength with height in the atmosphere. High wind shear prevents tropical disturbances from organizing into strong systems, while also ruining systems that do begin to form.

So, does this mean that this storm season will be a bust? Not so much. Weather is ever-changing and conditions remain generally favorable for strong storms to form, although it is rational to assume that we may see fewer storms in the narrowed timeframe remaining in the season. In fact, if even two-thirds of the predicted storms still form, this would still mark the seventh consecutive year of higher-than-average hurricane activity—and that is a possibility. In 2001, zero hurricanes formed prior to September 9, followed by a frantic nine hurricanes from that point to the end of the season. Even with a slow start, some experts still see a 70% chance at this season reaching average or above-average numbers. And, no matter how many storms form, it only takes one major hurricane to make a season memorable for all the wrong reasons.

What Do Ocean Temperatures Have to Do With It?

If this season does become more active, it will continue a recent trend of overall increased storm activity. Scientists report that this is directly related to our warming climate, which causes rising surface sea temperatures that in turn result in higher storm surges, stronger winds and record rainfalls. A warming ocean not only creates more frequent storms, but also more intense storms and storms that intensify more quickly. In general, the warmer the ocean, the more energy it has available to feed a developing storm. A 2013 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that, for every degree Celsius of increased global temperature, we have seen about a 25% increase in the frequency of category 4 and 5 storms that, by their nature, cause the most damage when they make landfall. For reference, according to NOAA, a 150-mph category 4 storm has 256-times the potential for damage as a 75-mph category 1 storm. In 2021, the average land surface temperature was about 0.84 degrees Celsius warmer than twentieth century averages from just 20 years ago, so these increases are already being felt around the globe.

In addition, 2013 to 2021 are nine of the 10 hottest years on record. From frequency to intensity, researchers agree that the warmer the ocean, the worse the storm season. This means that our behavior in mitigating climate change matters when it comes to protecting our communities from the intensifying effects of major storms.

What Can We Do?

While it is worth it to take everyday measures in your life to combat climate change—from considering public transportation over driving to exploring alternative energy sources for your home that lessen your dependence on traditional fossil fuels—the most important thing each of us can do to save our warming planet is to familiarize ourselves with the policies and promises of politicians in power, from local elections through federal. Support lawmakers at every level who acknowledge accurate climate science, prioritize clean energy and support important programs like the global 30x30 initiative to fight climate change. The international community agrees that we have a narrowing timeframe in which to prevent irreversible negative effects of a warming climate. Here at the National Aquarium, we have plans in place to meet our pledge to reach net-zero emissions by 2035, but we all need to work together to effect large-scale change.

Right now, we have the opportunity to impact the health of America's oceans by speaking up to say no to additional offshore drilling leases. Offshore oil and gas drilling poses unnecessary risks—including spills and health impacts—to our ocean habitats, wildlife and coastal communities. The lingering impacts of past oil spill disasters can still be seen decades later. The Department of the Interior's (DOI) proposed Five-Year Plan includes 11 potential new offshore oil and gas lease sales. Please use your voice today and urge the Department to protect our ocean and communities by not authorizing any new lease sales. The comment period ends October 6, 2022, so act fast!

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