It’s a little of both.
“So in the past couple of years, we have had a very active hurricane season,” said Matthew Rosencrans, lead hurricane seasonal forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “And last year we had the most active hurricane season on record.”
To understand this, it helps to know that tropical storms get a name only after their winds reach a speed of 39 miles per hour (mph). Then if they zoom up to 74 mph or greater, they become an official hurricane.
In most years, the United States has an average of 14 named storms, seven of which develop powerful enough winds to reach hurricane status. On average, three of those become so strong and fast that they are called “major hurricanes.” But in 2020, scientists named a whopping 30 storms — which is more than double the yearly average! Fourteen of those tropical storms turned into hurricanes, and seven of those tipped into major hurricane territory.
“So if your perception for the past five years was that we’ve had a lot of hurricanes, you’d be correct,” said Rosencrans, who works for NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
But there’s also another factor. With more tropical storms and hurricanes each year, the chances are higher that some of them make landfall, where those winds and rains can cause flooding and damage to trees, buildings and homes. When that happens, said Rosencrans, you see more news stories and pictures of the damage on the Internet.
So it’s both. There have been more storms in recent years, and those storms are generating lots of stories about the damage they sometimes cause. As the world’s climate warms, these types of storms are able to produce more rain and become more powerful than they used to.
“Years ago, when a storm would form, maybe it would max out at Category 2,” said Rosencrans. (A hurricane’s category number tells you how fast its winds are, with Category 1 being the slowest and Category 5 being the fastest.) “But now it’s got more of a chance to make it to Category 3 or Category 4.”
The good news? Rosencrans and his fellow scientists at NOAA have more tools to understand hurricanes than before, such as faster computers, advanced satellites and specially designed planes that can dive into a storm and send back measurements that help forecasters make more accurate predictions.
“We combine all of that new information and new technology to give people a lot better warning of the storms that are coming,” Rosencrans said. “And that allows them to prepare better.”
If you want to learn more about hurricanes, visit NOAA’s kids page at scijinks.gov/hurricane.
Bittel is a freelance journalist who often writes about animals. His children’s book, “How to Talk to a Tiger … and Other Animals,” was published in April.