This season was forecast to be a busy season. Two of the most well-known and respected entities that forecast their predictions for the upcoming hurricane season are Colorado State University (CSU) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
CSU’s Tropical Meteorology Project team predicted an above-average Atlantic hurricane season on April 2. The team forecast 16 named storms, including eight hurricanes.
“Active seasons can play out very differently,” Klotzbach said. “For example, both 2004 and 2005 had comparable levels of ACE (227 ACE in 2004 and 245 ACE in 2005), but 2005 had 28 named storms while 2004 had only 15 named storms.”
ACE stands for “accumulated cyclone energy.” It is the metric used by meteorologists to account for both a storm’s strength and how long the storm lasts. Typically, the more ACE there is in a single hurricane season, the more active the season is.
Seven weeks after CSU put out its initial forecast, NOAA forecast a 60% chance for an above-normal season, predicting a 70% chance of having 13 to 19 named storms, of which six to 10 could develop into hurricanes, including three to six major hurricanes.
“Obviously, given our forecast named storm numbers, we were quite surprised to see 30 named storms, but as you can see from other indices that we forecast, most of them were close to in line with our predictions,” Klotzbach said.
Researchers at CSU use forecast models mainly based on ACE to make their hurricane season predictions.
The season began early when Tropical Storm Arthur formed on May 14, more than two weeks before Atlantic hurricane season officially began. The season runs from June 1 through November 30.
Every named storm so far this season except three (Arthur, Bertha, and Dolly) set a record for the earliest named storm ever recorded.
For example, Cristobal was the earliest third named storm on record when it formed on June 2, beating the previous record — Colin in 2016 — by three days. By the time Wilfred formed, the earliest 21st named storm, these systems were beating the previous records by nearly three weeks.
The only other time there were five active tropical cyclones — hurricane, tropical storm and/or tropical depression — in the Atlantic was in 1971.
This year, six storms reached major hurricane status — Laura, Teddy, Delta, Epsilon, Eta and Iota. This ties for the second highest number of major hurricanes in a single season. A major hurricane is a Category 3 or larger storm with winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph).
The season’s strongest storm was Hurricane Iota, which peaked at 160 mph. It was the second major hurricane to form in the month of November, which has never happened in recorded history — Eta was the first.
Iota made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph, just 2 mph shy of the Category 5 threshold. It was the strongest November hurricane on record to hit Nicaragua, breaking the record set by Eta two weeks before.
A record 12 named storms made landfall across seven states this year: Bertha, Cristobal, Fay, Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Marco, Sally, Beta, Delta, Eta and Zeta.
“Every mile of the US Gulf and Atlantic coast has been under a tropical storm or hurricane watch or warning, except for one single county with coastline: Wakulla County, Florida,” said Jake Carstens, a meteorology graduate research assistant at Florida State University.
In 2020, every month of hurricane season saw a storm make landfall in the US. May, considered pre-hurricane season, also experienced a storm landfall, meaning there were seven straight months of direct landfalls.
Despite most of the storms hitting the Gulf Coast, the Northeast was affected by three named storms — Fay, Isaias and Zeta. Tropical Storm Fay was the only storm to make landfall in the Northeast, hitting New Jersey on July 10. Hurricane Isaias, which made landfall in North Carolina in August, triggered a huge swath of power outages along the East Coast.
Remarkably, Florida made it almost to the very end of hurricane season before a storm made landfall. Eta became the first November landfall for Florida since Mitch in 1998. And since Eta made two landfalls in Florida, it added to the many miles of coastline under tropical alerts this season.
But of all the areas affected by tropical cyclones this year, Louisiana was the most frequent target. It had a record-breaking five storms make landfall: Cristobal, Laura, Marco, Delta and Zeta.
Hurricane Laura made landfall as a strong Category 4 storm near Cameron, Louisiana, on August 27. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta struck the same area, battering homes and businesses that were still being repaired from Laura.
Zeta was the fastest of these storms, making landfall at 24 mph. The slowest was Hurricane Sally, which was moving at 3 mph at landfall. Even though the storms were Category 2, the varying landfall speeds changed how the storms affected the local communities.
An average human walks at 3 to 4 mph, which means a person could have walked faster than Sally. But Sally’s super slow movement allowed the storm to dump a tremendous amount of rain over a prolonged period of time in the same locations. An average September sees 4-5 inches of rainfall along the Florida-Alabama-Mississippi panhandle, but Sally dropped that in just a couple of hours. By the time the storm left the region, at least three months of rain had accumulated in some spots.
But that speed also meant that rainfall totals were not as high as they were with Sally. Widespread totals were within the 2-4 inch range, with one small area of 6 inches near the Mississippi-Alabama border.
Isaias, the name people struggled to pronounce, affected almost everyone along the Eastern Seaboard. More than 100 million people were under either a hurricane watch or warning or tropical storm watch or warning stretching from Florida to Maine.
Texas had two landfalls, Hanna in July and Beta in September. Alabama was hit by Hurricane Sally in September. South Carolina was hit by the preseason storm Bertha in May.
The Greek alphabet
And there were a record number of Greek alphabet letters used for storm names — nine: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta and Iota. Four of the 12 US named storms were from the Greek alphabet. Two of the top five worst storms to ever hit Nicaragua in recorded history were from the Greek alphabet.
The latter portion of the season was remarkably the more intense portion of the season.
Of the first 21 named storms, on the regular hurricane season list, only two were major hurricanes — Laura and Teddy. However, of the nine names used in the Greek alphabet, four were major hurricanes — Delta, Epsilon, Eta and Iota.
When Iota reached Category 5 strength on November 16 with sustained winds of 160 mph, it became the first Greek alphabet storm to ever reach Category 5 intensity.
“So many storms stand out, but I think Iota really does put an exclamation point on what has been a crazy season,” Klotzbach said. “Iota was the latest forming Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic on record.”
Hurricane hunters and the data
There are two distinctive types of hurricane hunters, NOAA and the US Air Force Reserve. Both organizations fly missions into tropical systems to record invaluable data to be used by forecasters at the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
“Another four deployments were to evacuate the aircraft due to the threat of direct impacts at our home base in Mississippi, which takes an extra toll on our personnel. So we are proud of the work we’ve put in, but like everyone else, we’re ready get some rest and put a lid on the 2020 season,” DeHart said.
NOAA’s hurricane hunters flew 86 missions with nearly 700 flight hours logged.
“There were definitely a lot to choose from, but the biggest surprise for me was the entire Marco and Laura tasking,” DeHart said. “Simultaneous tropical cyclones in the Gulf of Mexico, which were flown from four different locations … that was just not something I ever thought I’d see.”
The science behind the record-breaking season
So what made this season different from other seasons and, more specifically, why did it produce so many storms? The answer is a combination of things: La Niña, lack of vertical wind shear and warmer ocean temperatures.
“Going into this hurricane season, we knew sea surface temperatures were running above average across much of the Atlantic, and that really continued to be the case through the entire season,” CNN meteorologist Taylor Ward said. “In many regions the water temperatures were 2 to 4 degrees Celsius above average, especially in critical areas like the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and the main development region of the tropical Atlantic.”
This provided extreme amounts of fuel for storms that developed in the low wind shear conditions provided by La Niña.
La Niña is essentially the “cool phase” of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) climate pattern, which is a naturally occurring phenomenon that involves fluctuating ocean temperatures in the Pacific. El Niño is the warm phase of the cycle. Both La Niña and El Niño occur every three to five years on average, according to NOAA.
La Niña weakens high atmospheric winds. In the case of tropical systems, it allows warm air pockets to grow vertically and develop into hurricanes.
“In addition to the La Nina conditions that you mentioned, the tropical Atlantic was much warmer than normal,” Klotzbach explains. “Also, vertical wind shear in July was extremely low across the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean, which is one of the reasons why we increased our forecast from July to August.”
Vertical wind shear is the change of wind speed and direction with height. For a hurricane to form, it needs little to no wind shear and a very moist atmosphere.
This lack of vertical wind shear is part of the reason why the early portion of this year’s hurricane season was so active. Tropical Storm Arthur formed before the season officially began and the season’s rapid pace continued when a record nine named storms developed between May and July.
Wind shear can often make or break a system. When a storm moves into a high shear environment, it often spells doom or at the very least weakens it or prevents it from intensifying further. Having extremely low areas of wind shear allowed several storms to intensify easily and quickly.
“August-October-averaged zonal vertical wind shear was extremely low across the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean,” Klotzbach said.
Climate change may have been a contributing factor to the record hurricane season. While a warming planet does not directly impact the total number of storms, there is mounting evidence that climate change does affect the intensity, forward speed, and the amount of rain produced by tropical cyclones.
Rapid intensification is one way scientists believe the climate crisis is affecting hurricanes, with warmer waters helping storms strengthen more quickly. Rapid intensification is where a named storm strengthens at least 35 mph in 24 hours or less.
This season 10 storms rapidly intensified, six of them were Greek alphabet storms. This set yet another season record for most rapidly intensifying storms in a single season since 1979 (tied with 1995).
Eight storms rapidly intensified 24 to 48 hours before landfall. Those storms were Hanna, Laura, Sally, Delta, Gamma, Zeta, Eta and Iota. Rapid intensification is especially dangerous when it happens in the 24 to 48 hours before a storm reaches land. People living along the coastline go to bed anticipating a Category 1 but wake up to a Category 3 major hurricane far stronger than anticipated.
“Hurricane Sally stood out to me this year. The storm’s sluggish pace, at times moving as slow as 2 mph just miles off the Gulf Coast, was as memorable as any storm this season,” CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri said. “Sally’s complete lack for a defined steering characteristic as it meandered along the northern Gulf coast, soaking the region for days before it ever made landfall resonated with me.”
Recent findings suggest that the warmer temperatures across the Arctic, an area that is warming at a disproportionately higher rate, are playing a role in weakening atmospheric circulations. These weaker circulations can reduce forward speed of tropical systems, hence allowing for wetter and more destructive storms.
And while researchers say we can’t draw climate change conclusions based on any one storm, they say the overall trend line is clear: Hurricanes are packing a punch farther inland than in recent decades.
Monday is the last official day of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, but it’s 2020, so Mother Nature may not have gotten that message. There is currently one system brewing in the Atlantic which has the potential to become a named storm in the next couple days. The next name on the list is the Greek letter Kappa. December storms have happened before. The last year a named storm developed in December was Olga in 2007.