Welcome to Hurricane Season 2017, you guys! If you are new to Houston, congratulations on your very first tropical storm season. For the rest of us, here we go again.
When is Hurricane Season?
The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1 and doesn't end until November 30. More practically speaking, the Texas Gulf Coast is at its most vulnerable between mid-July and mid-September, with the peak between August 15 and September 15. The Texas coastline has never seen a hurricane landfall after late September, so by the time the first cool front meekly makes its way south, signaling an end to summer, it will take the tropical weather with it.
Until then, we get to think about — if only in the backs of our heads — the possibility of a tropical storm threatening the Houston-Galveston area.
Should people worry?
Before you go freaking out and packing your house like a doomsday prepper, there are a few facts worth noting.
First, it is likely some form of tropical disturbance will affect our area. The moisture from low pressure systems in the Gulf is one of the most common sources of rainfall for Houston during the summer. Fortunately, these are mostly systems that don't even make tropical depression strength. That doesn't mean they won't dump a bunch of rain on us from time to time, but that's life in the Bayou City.
Second, only seven hurricanes have made landfall within 100 nautical miles of Houston since 1970. Among those are Bonnie (1986), Chantal (1989), Jerry (1989), Rita (2005) and Humberto (2007), which had little to no impact on the immediate Houston area.
That's the good news.
Okay, what's the bad news?
The bad news is that the two hurricanes that did strike us in the last 40-plus years were Alicia (1983) and Ike (2008), two of the Gulf's more devastating storms. And, when you factor in Tropical Storm Allison (2001), it helps to underscore the fact that it only takes one to make a significant impact.
What about this year?
Which brings us to this year's forecast. Predictions are always shifting, just like the climate. The number and strength of storms in the Atlantic Basin are very difficult to predict. However, the folks at Colorado State University have, for decades, been the best at it and their recent forecast does give us some inkling of what might be in store this summer.
CSU is calling for 11 named storms (anything stronger than a tropical depression gets a name), four hurricanes and two category 3 or higher hurricanes. The National Hurricane Center is slightly more bullish in its predictions, going with 11-17 named storms, 5-9 hurricanes and 2-4 major hurricanes.
Putting this in perspective, it is right at or just above average for our current period of hurricane activity.
What do you mean by that?
Since the early '90s, the world has been in a period of increased hurricane activity, a cycle that lasts somewhere between 20 and 40 years. Some meteorologists have suggested we are on the downside of that cycle, but last year saw 15 named storms, seven of them hurricanes, of which five reached category 3 or above, so we might want to hold off on popping the champagne corks. Also, Hurricane Alicia, which devastated our area in 1983, happened during one of the quietest seasons on record. As we said, it only takes one.
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Why shouldn't people freak out?
First, named storms do not mean landfalls. It is quite common for large hurricanes never to interact with any landmass. Second, there are a TON of inhibiting factors, from upper-level wind shear to Saharan dust (yes, that's a thing), that can prevent storms from forming or growing in size.
Finally, and most important, you can always get out of the way. Hurricanes are slow-moving and the prediction models for tracking their paths have become remarkably accurate over the past decade. Often, we know with a fairly high degree of certainty a small landfall window as far out as five days.
So, be prepared and pay attention, but no need to freak out. By October, you'll have forgotten hurricane season even happened.