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NOAA predicts Atlantic hurricane season will be unusually active

Hurricane response efforts could be hampered as country responds to the coronavirus pandemic

Satellite view of Hurricane Dorian in 2019. (NOAA)

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to be unusually active, according to a seasonal outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Any landfalling storms could create unprecedented challenges for government officials working to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which scientists expect to continue, albeit possibly at a slower pace, throughout the summer.

The NOAA outlook calls for a 60 percent likelihood of an above-average season, with a 70 percent chance of 13 to 19 named storms, six to 10 of which will become hurricanes. Three to six of those could become major hurricanes of Category 3 intensity or higher, and there is a chance that the season will become “extremely active,” the agency said.

NOAA’s outlook shows only a 10 percent chance of a below-average Atlantic hurricane season.

An average season produces 12 named storms and six hurricanes, three of which intensify into major hurricanes.

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“We’re not seeing anything that would indicate a likelihood for a below-average season,” said Gerry Bell, lead hurricane season forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

The agency is basing this outlook on several factors, including an above-average West African monsoon season, below-average wind shear across the Atlantic, and an absence of an El Niño event in the tropical Pacific Ocean that can stifle Atlantic hurricane activity. Much of the North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea currently has unusually mild sea surface temperatures for this time of year, including record warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes get their energy by siphoning moisture and energy from warm ocean waters.

Recent projections of conditions in the tropical Pacific, which can influence the Atlantic Ocean basin as well, call for increased odds of a La Niña event developing toward the end of summer and early fall.

Such events are characterized by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the equatorial tropical Pacific, and they can lower wind shear over the tropical Atlantic. This makes conditions more favorable for tropical cyclones to form and maintain their strength, since wind shear — winds varying in speed and/or direction with height — can disrupt such storms.

The new NOAA outlook comes after a slew of private sector hurricane outlooks also have predicted an above-average season.

Forecasters at Colorado State University released an outlook in April calling for a total of eight hurricanes to form in the Atlantic, which is above the seasonal average of 6.4 such storms. Of those, four were predicted to become major hurricanes, above the average of 2.7. Significantly, that outlook placed nearly 70 percent odds that least one major hurricane — reaching Category 3 strength or greater with winds exceeding 111 mph — would make landfall in the Lower 48 states.

The Colorado State team forecast a total of 16 named storms anticipated to form in the Atlantic Basin overall, including tropical storms. That’s above the average of 12 named storms.

AccuWeather, based in State College, Pa., is also predicting an above-average season, with 14 to 18 named storms. Another seasonal forecast, out of Penn State University, is predicting one of the most active Atlantic tropical seasons on record.

The higher-end storms, of Category 3 and greater, are responsible for the most damage, and climate change research, including a study published on Monday, has found an increased likelihood of major tropical cyclones as the world warms. Each of the past four Atlantic hurricane seasons has featured at least one Category 5 storm.

Above-average Atlantic hurricane season predicted, including a possible major hurricane strike

Other studies have shown that storms may be approaching and moving over land more slowly, which worsens their impacts, and there is robust scientific agreement that they are producing more rainfall as ocean and air temperatures increase. Hurricane Harvey, for example, which struck Texas in 2018, led to an all-time rainfall record for any landfalling tropical system in the United States.

Significantly, the Colorado State forecasters said they anticipate an “above average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States.”

The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1, peaks in September and ends Nov. 30. However, the 2020 season has already started, since Tropical Storm Arthur formed in May.

FEMA to face extra burden while NOAA could be tested anew

With the hurricane season falling in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, FEMA, which is the main federal disaster response agency, is likely to face a challenge that is unparalleled in its history. The agency historically has dealt with multiple hurricanes and floods, notably during the 2005 hurricane season, when three hurricanes struck Florida within weeks of each other. But it has not had to address a pandemic at the same time as a regional crisis like a hurricane.

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“I want to reassure the nation that FEMA continues to take deliberate and active steps” to safeguard Americans’ safety and disaster response, said Carlos Castillo, acting deputy administrator for resilience at FEMA. He said FEMA has already added office space and personnel, which he referred to on a press call as “surge forces,” to respond to any storms that threaten land.

Castillo advised coastal residents to start planning now for a landfalling tropical storm or hurricane and said the coronavirus should not stop people from evacuating if they are ordered to do so. “If you are in an evacuation zone and you are evacuated, you should plan to go, maybe to friends who are outside the evacuation zone,” Castillo said. He also said coronavirus-related planning is underway for setting up evacuation centers to ensure social distancing can be maintained. For example, the capacity of evacuation centers will be decreased to accommodate social distancing, he said.

The pandemic has laid bare the Trump administration’s willingness to sideline scientific agencies, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) having played a background role in the response efforts so far.

Last year, NOAA’s credibility as a science agency was called into question during Hurricane Dorian, when President Trump falsely asserted that the storm posed a serious threat to Alabama despite forecast information to the contrary. NOAA was forced to admonish its forecasters for contradicting the president via an unsigned public affairs statement, which may have violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy.

A report on that incident from the Commerce Department’s inspector general is expected to be released soon.

NOAA to upgrade forecast tools as we’re stuck in an active era in the Atlantic

The past five to 10 years have been a period of exceptionally strong, record-setting tropical cyclones in the Atlantic and several other ocean basins. The Atlantic has been in an era of active hurricane seasons since 1995, which is thought to be related to both a natural climate cycle and, to some extent, human-caused climate change. If the 2020 season is unusually active, it would be the fifth-straight such season.

Neil Jacobs, the acting NOAA administrator, said the agency will have upgraded forecast tools to work with during the 2020 season, with upgraded hurricane forecast models and new observational tools, including autonomous observation platforms in the ocean and the sky.

Between 2016 and 2019 in the Atlantic, storms attained Category 5 strength in four straight years for the first time on record in the satellite era of storm monitoring (dating to the 1960s). Six of the Atlantic’s 26 Category 5 storms in the satellite era have occurred since 2016, each of which was notable for its intensity. These included Hurricane Dorian in 2019, which ravaged the Bahamas and tied for the second-strongest storm recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, packing winds of 185 mph.

In addition, Hurricane Michael in 2018 made landfall on the Florida Panhandle as the strongest storm ever to strike that area and as the latest a storm that strong has ever struck U.S. shores. The storm heavily damaged Tyndall Air Force Base and wiped out beach towns while also causing wind damage that stretched far inland.

Jason Samenow and Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.