Hurricane Florence Swamps the Carolinas

Hurricane Florence, the 6th named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane season, slammed North and South Carolina this weekend.

Steered across the Atlantic by a strong area of high pressure, Florence made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, NC on Friday morning as a category-1 storm.  It peaked at category-4 strength while still over the ocean, but weakened as it moved closer to the US coast.

Despite this downgrade, Florence still packed a powerful punch. Its strong winds, flooding rains, and storm surge forced people to evacuate their homes and caused significant property damage as well as widespread power outages across the region. In the hard hit city of New Bern, NC, at the mouth of the Neuse River, a storm surge of more than ten feet was reported. Local officials there say upward of 4000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.

Moving as slowly as 2 mph at one point, Florence essentially stalled out over the region, allowing it to unleash massive amounts of precipitation. Preliminary reports show that the storm set new state records for rainfall from a single tropical cyclone in both North and South Carolina. In Elizabethtown, NC, 35.93 inches was reported, crushing the previous record of 24.06 inches set by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. In South Carolina, the town of Loris, about 25 miles north of Myrtle Beach, reported 23.63 inches of rain, eclipsing the old record of 17.45 inches set by Tropical Storm Beryl in 1994.

If these numbers are confirmed by the NWS, that would mean four state tropical cyclone rainfall records were broken in the last thirteen months. The other two being Texas with 60.58 inches of rain from Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 and Hawaii with 52.02 inches from Hurricane Lane just last month.

Measuring 400 miles wide, Florence’s successive bands of heavy rain also caused catastrophic inland flooding as several rivers in the region overflowed their banks and inundated communities. In Fayetteville, NC – nearly 100 miles from the coast – more than 15 inches of rain was reported as of Monday. The Cape Fear River, which runs through the city, is forecast to crest at 61.8 feet on Tuesday, which is more than 25 feet above flood stage.

The death toll from this storm currently stands at 20, with most fatalities being water related. Sadly, as the rivers across the area continue to rise, that number is expected to increase in the coming days.

Hurricane Florence off the coast of the Carolinas. Credit: NOAA

How Hurricanes are Classified

Hurricanes are one of nature’s most powerful storms. When formed in the Atlantic Ocean or North-Eastern Pacific, they are rated according to the Saffir-Simpson Scale.

Developed in the early 1970’s by Herbert Saffir, a civil engineer, and Dr. Robert Simpson of the National Hurricane Center, the scale classifies hurricanes into five categories based on the strength of their sustained winds. Each category is considered an estimate of the potential damage that a storm will cause if it makes landfall.  As conditions change within a storm, its category is re-assessed.

The different categories, 1 through 5, represent increasing wind speeds and escalating degrees of damage. Storms rated category 3 or higher are considered major hurricanes. The last category 5 storm to make landfall in the US was Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

While a useful tool, the Saffir-Simpson scale does not tell the whole story of the dangers to life and property posed by a hurricane. Regardless of category, these storms can produce dangerous storm surges in coastal areas and flooding rains further inland. Recent examples of these types of impacts were seen during Sandy and Harvey, respectively.

Hurricane Lane: The Wettest Tropical System Ever Recorded in Hawaii and the Second Wettest for US

Hurricane Lane, the twelfth named storm of eastern Pacific hurricane season, slammed the state of Hawaii with strong winds and flooding rains over the weekend. It was the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the Aloha state.

The storm, according to the NWS, peaked at category-5 strength, but weakened as it approached Hawaii. While it did not make landfall, its outer rain bands still packed a punch that was felt across the island chain. The Big Island, however, was one of the hardest hit. In the town of Mountain View, about 15 miles southwest of Hilo, 52.02 inches of rain was reported. That is the second highest rainfall total ever recorded from a tropical cyclone in the entire United States. The highest total, 60.58 inches, fell in Nederland, Texas during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

The slow moving nature of Lane and the orographic lift provide by the mountainous terrain of Hawaii helped push the rainfall total into the record books. Falling in a relatively short period of time, the relentless precipitation caused widespread flooding, mudslides, and road closures. It also forced mass evacuations as well as a number of water rescues.

While the eastern and central Pacific basins produce about 15 named storms a year, they rarely hit Hawaii. This is largely because of the state’s location in the vast Pacific Ocean. Sitting at about 20°N latitude, most storms pass south of the archipelago or dissipate in the relatively cooler waters to its north and east.

The last hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii was Iniki, a category-4 storm, in 1992.

Source: NWS

Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones: What’s the Difference?

As Hurricane Lane makes its way toward Hawaii, many people have been asking me why the storm is not being called a typhoon given that it is taking place in the Pacific. The answer is all about location.

Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones are all the same type of storm – tropical cyclones. They are just called different things in different parts of the world. It’s like the way people in certain parts of the US say “soda” when referring to a cold fizzy drink, while people in other parts of the country use the word “pop”.

The term hurricane is used for tropical cyclones in the northern hemisphere from the Greenwich Meridian (0°) westward to the International Date Line (the 180° line of longitude). That includes the Atlantic basin as well as the eastern and central Pacific. The eastern Pacific is defined as everything north of the equator from the west coast of the North American continent to 140°W. The central Pacific, where Hawaii is located, extends from 140°W to 180°W.

Typhoon is the word used for storms west of that line, any area known as the western Pacific. If a hurricane crosses the International Date Line and maintains its strength, it will be renamed as a typhoon. In 2014, for example, Hurricane Genevieve became Typhoon Genevieve when it crossed into the western Pacific.

Across the southern hemisphere, all tropical cyclones are simply called cyclones.

These powerful storms, regardless of what we call them, can pose a threat to life and property. All warnings should be taken seriously.

Credit: American Red Cross

Names for the 2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season

Today is the first day of the Atlantic Hurricane Season. Although one named storm, Alberto, already formed this year, the season officially runs from June 1 to November 30.

Since 1950, each tropical storm or hurricane to form in the Atlantic has been given a unique name. They come from a set of six rotating lists produced by the World Meteorological Organization. A name is retired only when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage. Some notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Harvey, Irma, Irene, Katrina, Maria, and Sandy. The names for this year’s storms are listed below.

Credit: NOAA

Subtropical Storm Alberto Makes Landfall in Florida and Travels North to Canada

Subtropical storm Alberto, the first named storm of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season, made landfall near Laguna Beach in the Florida Panhandle on Monday. It was the second time this decade that a named storm hit the southeast coast on Memorial Day.

Classified as a subtropical storm, Alberto was a hybrid between a tropical storm and a regular low-pressure system usually found at higher latitudes. A tropical system is fueled by the latent heat released by the evaporation of ocean water while a regular storm is powered by the temperature contrast between air masses. Hybrids are able to access both energy sources.

Despite this somewhat confusing hybrid status, Alberto still packed a punch. Strong winds, downed trees, and heavy rain were seen across a large swath of the southeastern United States. A wind gust of 59-mph was reported at Fort Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, FL. Storm surge flooding was another concern. Water levels rose between 1 and 3 feet from Tampa Bay, FL to the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana.

Moving northward, heavy rain from the remnants of Alberto unleashed flash flooding in the several states and caused landslides in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Nearly 10 inches of rain was reported in Black Mountain, NC.

Forming in the waters off the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico on May 25, Alberto traveled all the way to Lake Huron near the Canadian border before dissipating on May 31. It was the first named storm to reach that far north this early in the season, according to researchers at the University of Miami.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1.

Track of Subtropical Storm Alberto. Credit: Supportstorm

2018 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook: Average to Above Average

The number of hurricanes that develop in the Atlantic basin varies from year to year. For 2018, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting an average to above average season.

Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In this country, we are most impacted by the Atlantic hurricane season, which affects the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. It runs from June 1 through November 30.

Overall, NOAA predicts a 70% likelihood of ten to sixteen named storms forming this season, of which five to nine could become hurricanes, including one to four major hurricanes. An average season produces twelve named storms, including six hurricanes and three that become major hurricanes. A major hurricane is one that is rated category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

This outlook, according to NOAA, is based on the possibility of the development of a weak El Niño and near-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic. El Niño conditions in the Pacific tend to cause increased wind shear in the Atlantic, which suppresses tropical development in that basin.

Last year, 2017, was the most active Atlantic Hurricane season in more than a decade.  It produced seventeen named storms, including Harvey, Irma, and Maria. But regardless of the number of storms that actually form this year, it is important to remember that it only takes one land-falling system in your community to make it an impactful season.

Source: NOAA

 

The Eastern Pacific Hurricane Season Begins Today

Hurricane season in the eastern Pacific begins today.

Tropical cyclones, known as hurricanes in the United States, develop around the globe at different times of the year. In the northeastern Pacific, they tend to form between May 15 and November 30. This early start, compared to the Atlantic, is due to the basin’s warm sea surface temperatures and relatively low wind shear.

While powerful, these Pacific storms are generally not as familiar to Americans as those that form in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. This is because they rarely make landfall in this country. In fact, it has only happened twice. A hurricane slammed San Diego, CA in 1858 and a tropical storm battered Long Beach, CA in 1939. This low rate of occurrence is attributed to the cold water of the California Current that flows south along the west coast. Nonetheless, Pacific hurricanes can still impact the US.

Developing in the tropics, Pacific storms deteriorate as they travel north to cooler waters and in some cases over the mountains of Mexico. However, their remnants are still laden with moisture when they reach the southwestern US, where they often unleash flooding rains.

East Pacific storms can also cross into the Central Pacific and affect Hawaii. (The dividing line between the two basins is 140°W longitude). One such storm was 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, the worst hurricane in the state’s history. With wind speeds measured up to 145mph, it was rated category-4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

On average, the eastern Pacific produces 15 to 16 named storms in any given year. Of those, eight to nine develop into hurricanes with 4 to 5 becoming major hurricanes.

Source: NWS

Hurricane Names Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate Retired

There will never be another hurricane by the name of Harvey, Irma, Maria, or Nate. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has announced that it is officially retiring these names from its list of Atlantic cyclones.

The WMO is responsible for naming tropical storms and hurricanes around the world.  It maintains a set of six rotating lists for each hurricane-prone region. After a six-year cycle, names are re-used.  Names are only retired when a storm was particularly noteworthy – causing a large number of fatalities or an extraordinary amount of damage.

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was brutal, but four storms were particularly destructive. Hurricane Harvey, a category-4 storm, made landfall in Texas and dumped a record-breaking amount of rain in the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding. Irma clobbered the Florida Keys as category-4 hurricane, but its impacts were felt throughout the entire Sunshine state. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico as a high end category-4 storm and knocked out power to more than 90% of the island for months. Nate hit the US Gulf Coast as a category-1 storm, but most of its deadly impacts were felt in Central America when it was still a tropical storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, 86 storm names have been retired since the current naming system began in 1953. This year marks the fifth time that four or more names have been retired from a single season. Three of those -1955, 1995, and 2004 – each had four names retired. In 2005, five names were retired – the most ever from one hurricane season.

Starting in 2023, when last year’s list is recycled, the names Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate will be replaced by Harold, Idalia, Margot, and Nigel. Some other notable retired Atlantic Basin storm names include: Andrew, Katrina, Irene, and Sandy.

The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1.

Four names from the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season are retired. Credit: WMO

Extremely Active 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season Comes to a Close

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season officially ends today.  Not only was it above average, as predicted, it was the basin’s fifth most active season on record.

According to NOAA, there were seventeen named storms this season. Of these, ten developed into hurricanes and six were major hurricanes with ratings of category 3 or higher on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. An average season produces twelve named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes. It is also interesting to note that this year’s ten hurricanes developed consecutively over the course of ten weeks, marking the largest number of hurricanes to form in a row in the satellite era.

This season’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE), which measures the intensity and duration of storms, was also exceptionally high. On average, a season will post an ACE of 104 in the Atlantic. This year, according to researchers at Colorado State University, it was 226 – the seventh highest in the historical record.

Officially running from June 1 to November 30, the season got off to an early start this year. Tropical Storm Arlene was a rare pre-season storm that developed in April. Another interesting outlier was Hurricane Ophelia in October. It was the easternmost major hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic Basin and the strongest storm on record to hit the Republic of Ireland. The biggest names of the season, however, were Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

In August, Harvey made landfall in Texas as category-4 hurricane. It was the first major hurricane to hit the United States since Wilma in 2005. It was also the wettest storm on record, dumping more than 50 inches of rain in southeastern Texas. This extreme precipitation caused catastrophic flooding in the Houston area.

Hurricane Irma maintained category-5 strength winds for 37 hours before making landfall as a category-4 storm in the Florida Keys. Measuring about 425 miles in diameter, Irma was wider than the Florida peninsula and its effects were felt across the entire Sunshine state in early September.

Just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. It was the third category-four hurricane to hit the US, or one of its territories, in less than a month. In 166 years of record keeping, that never happened before.

Causing so much destruction, Harvey, Irma, and Maria will likely be retired from the World Meteorological Organization’s list of storm names.

This active hurricane season was largely the result of above-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic and ENSO neutral to cool La Niña conditions in the Pacific. With warm water to fuel storms coupled with reduced wind shear across the Gulf of Mexico, tropical development in the Atlantic basin was essentially unhindered.

In terms of economic impact, ENKI Operations, a private research firm, estimates the property damage, clean up costs, and lost business productivity from this year’s storms to be $206 billion. That would make 2017 the costliest hurricane season on record for the US. The official tally from NOAA will not be available until early 2018.

Data: NOAA