Hurricane Forecasters Predict Another Busy Season - 4 Thoughts

Early season hurricane forecasts are out, but how important are they?
Early season hurricane forecasts are out, but how important are they? Photo by Brandon Navarro
As Houston winter weather (i.e. cool-ish temperatures) gives way to spring, the flowers start blooming, everything looks green again and the first forecasts of the Atlantic hurricane season begin hitting the web. For sports fans, think of these as early mock drafts, but with significantly more science.

The first of the most consequential forecasts, that from the team at Colorado State University, was released this week along with a slew of others. And if you live along the Gulf Coast as we do here in Houston, it's not exactly good news. All are calling for another busy season in the tropical Atlantic thanks to warm sea surface temperatures and potential La NiƱa conditions. How bad will it be? Let's discuss.

It probably won't be 2020 bad (or 2005 for that matter).

Last year set a record for the number of named storms with 30. It was a wild year in the Atlantic Basin. And, in response to the last 30 years of data, the National Hurricane Center increased the average number of storms per year from 12 to 14. Basically, they looked at the last three decades and thought the average of 12 was simply too low given what we had seen since 1990. In fact, we are in a period of naturally increased hurricane activity that historically has run between 20 and 50 years. Some of that is now also being affected by the effects of global warming.

As bad as that all sounds, it is unlikely that 2021 will hit record territory like we saw in 2020 or in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. Still, with most forecasters calling for around 17 named storms and upwards of 7 or 8 hurricanes, we shouldn't think of this season as average either.

The eastern U.S. coastline might be the bigger target than the Gulf.

One of the things forecasters also look at is the possible position and strength of what is colloquially referred to as the Bermuda High, a high pressure area that sets up over the central-northern Atlantic most summers. That high pressure tends to dictate just how far west a storm moves before ultimately turning north. Hurricanes are focused areas of low pressure and steer around the edges of high pressure systems like these. The bigger and stronger the high pressure, the farther storms move across the Atlantic toward the United States.

This year, some are predicting a slightly weaker than normal Bermuda High with its position slightly father east than last year. That could mean more storms turning to the north sooner than they did last year helping to avoid Gulf landfalls from typical Atlantic-formed storms. However, and this is a critical point, we don't know if this forecast will be correct and, more importantly, not all storms form in the Atlantic. Many form in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, and are not affected by the Bermuda High.

It's VERY early in the forecast period.

While some of the numbers above are a bit scary, keep in mind this is extremely early. These forecasts are given as general guidance, but should not be considered gospel. Think of the local forecast. Weather patterns change pretty quickly. At 48h ours out, computer models are pretty good at predicting the weather in a given area. Go out a week, two weeks and it's a crapshoot.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention. But, at least for now, we should take these forecasts with a grain of salt.

"It only takes one" is a refrain worth repeating.

Of course, having said all that, it only takes a single storm to make a huge impact. Anyone who has lived in Houston since 2017 understands that. And if you have been here longer, you know that every season offers fairly substantial threats from the tropics. It's why it is a good idea to start planning now before you have to start worrying about it. Hurricane season doesn't open until June 1 and, even then, it will likely be a month or two before we begin to see legitimate threats to the Houston area. So, while you have the time, get your plan together, but don't freak out.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke