On August 25, 2021, Hal Needham was in metro New Orleans. There was no indication that a Category 4 hurricane was preparing to make landfall 24 hours later. The storm was only a Category 1 that afternoon.
“Hurricane Ida blew up by 55 mph in [the last] 24 hours,” says Needham, the founder of Marine Weather and Climate, which provides data and analysis related to marine and coastal hazards. “Because it intensified so rapidly, we didn’t have time to get millions of people out. The meteorology said get out, but the sociology said nothing about a Category 4 hurricane. There was no emergency messaging. It astonished me.”
On May 24, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 2022 hurricane season forecast, predicting the seventh consecutive year with above-average activity. The season extends from June 1 to Nov. 30. NOAA says there’s a 65 percent chance of an above-normal season and a 10 percent chance of below normal. The agency is forecasting 14 to 21 named storms with winds stronger than 39 mph. Of those, six to 10 could become major hurricanes with winds of 74 mph or higher, including three to six storms that are a Category 3 or higher, with minimum winds of 111 mph.
NOAA says it is providing these numbers with 70 percent confidence. The 2022 forecast comes on the heels of 2021, which was the third-most-active season, with 21 named storms, and 2020, the most active, with 30.
The increased activity anticipated for 2022 is attributed to several factors, including the current La Niña condition that is likely to persist throughout the summer and into fall. It’s creating warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean, and weaker Atlantic trade winds. It’s also producing an enhanced African monsoon that supports stronger African easterly waves that often seed the strongest and longest-lasting hurricanes.
“With La Niña, you see the sheer aloft is small,” says Robert Rood, a climate professor at the University of Michigan and a respected name in hurricane forecasting. “La Niña is coming off stronger than people expected three or four months ago. Your starting point in the tropics is getting warmer, and there’s a lot of energy.”
When Rood talks about the sheer aloft, he’s referring to cold winds that come down from the north and meet the warmer ones coming up from the tropics. When these winds collide, it creates the circling effect of a hurricane. With talk of climate change and global warming, the winds coming down from the north aren’t as strong, which could be changing how hurricanes behave and the threats they present.
The most dangerous parts of hurricanes have traditionally been the damage caused by wind, but with warmer ocean temperatures, the threat of higher storm surges and torrential rains are greater. This is causing many climate experts to question whether the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale needs to include potential rain and storm-surge damage.
In an email to Soundings Trade Only, Phil Klotzbach of Colorado State University’s hurricane forecasting office wrote, “As sea levels continue to rise with climate change, even if the storms don’t change at all, we would expect more damage since the storm surge will move farther inland (since the sea level is higher). While a few inches of sea level rise may not seem like much, it can be a huge problem in areas where the coastline slopes very gradually (e.g., Louisiana).”
The best example of the increased danger presented by rainfall was Hurricane Harvey in 2015, when it parked off the coast of Houston and dumped 50 inches of rain in record time. The winds aloft weren’t strong enough to keep the storm moving, and it kept strengthening, fed by the warm Gulf of Mexico waters.
“There are two things I would say in terms of the preparation,” Rood says. “The storm surge is becoming more of a threat, as is the increase of significant rain.”
Klotzbach adds: “If hurricanes move slower over land, they will likely produce more rain (since they spend more time moving over a specific location). This would exacerbate the increased rainfall issue.”
Putting things in a different context, Needham says: “What kills most of the people during a hurricane is the flooding. You can have two Category 1s, and one is pushing 1 foot of salt water and one could be pushing 11 feet of salt water.”
Another phenomenon known as the Loop Current has forecasters closely watching this season. It’s a powerful current of warm tropical air that is reaching farther into the Gulf of Mexico than normal. Its heat can cause tropical storms to intensify quickly, which is a major concern for the Gulf Coast. In 2005, Katrina crossed the Loop Current before it devastated New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, seven became major hurricanes. This year, researchers say the Loop Current looks similar to the way it did in 2005.
While most meteorologists agree that there is some element of global warming, Needham attributes some of the above-average temperatures to a cycle called the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation. “We’ve been in a warm phase since 1995, and 25 years prior, we were in a cool phase,” he says. “I don’t see it necessarily tied to climate change. I see it tied to phases we are in now.”
Needham also says that a weather station a couple blocks from the beach in Galveston, Tex., is a good indicator of how much warmer the area has gotten. It’s been consistently recording warmer overnight temperatures,which is noteworthy because they are not affected by the sun.
“We’re seeing a lot more hot nights than we were seeing 100 or 120 years ago,” Needham says.
The More Preparation, the Better
While the acknowledged rating system for hurricanes is being debated, the two primary models used to predict them are the Global Forecast System, which is a computer model run by NOAA, and the European Medium-Range Forecast Model, usually referred to simply as the European or Euro.
Colorado State has its own forecast, and there are smaller groups as well. Most meteorologists look at multiple models when a storm is approaching to better predict things such as landfall, wind speed and other attributes.
The European model has been slightly more reliable in its predictions, and it is acknowledging the effect that the more active La Niña condition is expected to have on weather in the United States in 2022.
Needham’s biggest concern going into the summer 2022 is people who may become complacent because they think they made it through a hurricane when a storm hit their home area. “On the east coast of Florida, Hurricane Dorian was 120 miles east of Palm Beach and parked over the Bahamas,” he says, adding that Hurricane Irma took a lucky track for residents of the same area.
What they actually experienced, he says, was a near miss. Maybe a few of them, where they “evacuated two or three times and they come home to no damage,” he says. “This time, a Category 4 was heading for Fort Lauderdale and they didn’t leave.”
This article was originally published in the July 2022 issue.