With hurricane season starting June 1, Duke Energy meteorologists are forecasting an increase in tropical activity that would make this the most active year since Superstorm Sandy battered the East Coast in 2012.
The meteorologists predict 17 named storms, including eight hurricanes – three of them major – during the season that runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. That’s up from last year’s total of 11 named storms, which included four hurricanes – two major – and was slightly below average.
By comparison, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts a 70 percent chance of 10 to 16 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which four to eight could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including up to four major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher).
No major hurricane of a category-3-or-higher magnitude has made landfall along the U.S. in a decade, eclipsing the previous record of eight years from 1861 to 1868.
The last was Hurricane Wilma, which struck Mexico and Florida in 2005, the same year Hurricane Katrina crippled New Orleans. (Sandy, which devastated New York City and the New Jersey coast, was not a hurricane.)
Hurricanes can result in lost lives, serious injuries and extensive damage. Katrina, for example, caused hundreds of deaths and an economic toll of more than $100 billion, the costliest hurricane to strike the U.S.
Does an increased activity forecast mean widespread destruction is imminent? Not necessarily. But if a hurricane does land, everyone from meteorologists to emergency responders to power companies swings into action.
For Duke Energy, worker and customer safety is paramount. To gear up for the season, linemen run demonstrations that teach emergency workers, municipal leaders and customers about power line safety and how the company restores electricity.
When the threat intensifies, crews from Duke’s service areas in the Carolinas, Midwest and Florida will be ready to deploy.
“If we have a major storm, we need to be prepared,” said Duke meteorologist Max Thompson. “We’re hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. It’s kind of a cliché, but it only takes one storm to make a difference.”
Duke Energy employs a small group of full-time meteorologists to predict severe weather and potential disruptions to the electric service the company provides to 23 million Americans.
To make their annual hurricane season forecast, Thompson and fellow Duke meteorologist Stanton Lanham studied the 30-year period starting in 1986. Over that time, there was an average of 12 or 13 named storms per season, with six or seven hurricanes.
For 2016, the meteorologists relied on analog and statistical models and current atmospheric conditions to predict how the season will play out. “Probability is a meteorologist’s best friend,” Thompson said, “as well as warmer-than-average ocean temperatures in the central Atlantic.”
The El Niño effect
The reason they’re predicting more activity this year: an evolving weather pattern and fluctuating ocean temperatures.
We’re currently in an El Niño phase, which produces warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. That causes increases in rain and snow but keeps a wind shield of sorts over the Caribbean and the Atlantic. That shield keeps strong winds higher in the atmosphere, which helps prevent tropical disturbances from turning into hurricanes.
Duke meteorologists believe that El Niño will transition into a neutral phase and then morph into a La Niña pattern as the season evolves. La Niña’s cooler ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific induce weaker upper-level winds across the Caribbean and Atlantic, creating more attractive conditions for hurricanes to form.
As hurricane season approaches its busiest time in August and September, the meteorologists will be better able to pinpoint if and where the storms may land.
Duke meteorologists generally get their forecasts pretty close. Last year, for example, they predicted 10 named storms, one shy of the 11 that occurred. They correctly predicted the two major hurricanes, including Category 4 Hurricane Joaquin, which unleashed its main fury on the Bahamas and caused record rainfalls in the Carolinas that led to massive flooding.