Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:18 PM GMT on October 15, 2009
Atlantic tropical cyclone activity finishes its peak phase in mid-October, and takes a major downturn after about October 20 (Figure 1). Since the current active hurricane period began in 1995, the last half of October through the end of hurricane season has given birth to an average of 1.7 named storms, 0.8 hurricanes, and 0.3 intense hurricanes. These numbers are nearly double the long-term climatological averages for the past 100 years. So far this year, only one tropical storm has hit the U.S.--Tropical Storm Claudette. If no more tropical storms make landfall in the U.S., it will be the first year since 1993 to see only one tropical storm hitting the U.S.
Figure 1. Atlantic hurricane season activity over the past 100 years.
Late October and November storms tend to form from tropical waves that come off the coast of Africa, or from the remains of old fronts that push off the coast of the U.S. As we can see from the track plot of all last half of October storms (Figure 2), there is a lot of activity during the period, but relatively few storms form out near the African coast. The water temperatures off the coast of Africa are starting to cool and be marginal for hurricane formation, and the African Monsoon is waning, leading to fewer African waves coming off the coast. Wind shear is also starting to increase, as part of its normal fall cycle.
Climatology of late-season major hurricanes
Let's examine the possibilities of getting a late-season major hurricane, since those are the storms we care most about. Since 1960, there have been twelve hurricanes that have existed as major Category 3 or higher storms after October 15. Eight of these have occurred since 1995: Omar of 2008 (Cat 4, Lesser Antilles), Paloma of 2008 (Cat 4, Cayman Islands and Cuba), Wilma of 2005 (Cat 4, Mexico; Cat 3, SW Florida), Beta of 2005 (Cat 3, Nicaragua), Michelle of 2001 (Cat 4, Cuba), Lenny of 1999 (Cat 4, northern Lesser Antilles), Mitch of 1998 (Cat 5, Honduras), and Lili of 1996 (Bahamas, Category 3). The other four were Joan of 1988 (Cat 4, Nicaragua), Kate of 1985 (Cat 3, Gulf of Mexico), Ella of 1962 (Cat 3, west of Bermuda), and Hattie of 1961 (Cat 4, Belize). Wilma of 2005 was the only major hurricane since 1960 to hit the U.S. after October 15. The highest risk region for late season major hurricanes is the Western Caribbean, along the coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, Mexico, and Cuba. So, we can say with high confidence that most of the U.S. coast can relax. Only the west coast of Florida, Florida Keys, and South Florida need to still be concerned about the possibility of a major hurricane. The Lesser Antilles Islands, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola are also at low risk for a major hurricane the remainder of the season.
Figure 2. Tracks of all tropical storms and hurricanes since 1851 that formed October 16-31.
Sea Surface Temperatures
Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) are 0.5 - 1.5°C above average over the Western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico (Figure 3), the primary formation areas for late October storms. So, there is still plenty of fuel for a major hurricane to form. Note also the tongue of warmer than average SSTs extending out into the Pacific Ocean from the coast of South America, the signature of weak El Niño conditions.
Figure 3. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) departure from average for October 15. Image credit: NOAA.
Wind shear is usually defined as the difference in wind between 200 mb (roughly 40,000 foot altitude) and 850 mb (roughly 5,000 foot altitude). In most circumstances, wind shear above 20 knots will act to inhibit tropical storm formation by tearing a storm apart. Wind shear 10 knots and lower is very conducive for tropical storm formation.
The jet stream in mid-October is more active and extends further south, which brings higher levels of wind shear to the Atlantic. The more active jet stream also acts to recurve storms more quickly. Any system penetrating north of about 20 degrees north latitude we can expect to recurve quickly to the north and northeast this late in the season. The most recent 16-day forecast from the GFS model predicts a period of high wind shear over the tropical Atlantic over the next ten days (Figure 4). Beginning on October 25, wind shear is expected to fall again over the Western Caribbean, and we need to be alert for tropical storm formation then. Indeed, the latest run of the GFS model is predicting a large area of surface low pressure will form in the Western Caribbean during the last week of October, an indication that hurricane season may not be over yet.
El Niño conditions, which typically bring higher wind shear to the Atlantic and interfere with hurricane formation, continue to be present in the tropical Eastern Pacific. It is probably the case that some of this year's inactivity can be attributed to El Niño. However, as I discussed in a post earlier this year, El Niño events that warm the central Pacific more than the eastern Pacific (called "modiki" El Niño events), tend to bring less wind shear to the Atlantic. In recent weeks, El Niño conditions in the Eastern Pacific have trended more towards a "modiki" type event, with a large amount of warming in the Central Pacific. This shift in the El Niño may bring lower wind shear to the Atlantic over the final month of hurricane season.
Figure 4. Wind shear forecast for October 23, 2009, as produced by the 00 UTC run on October 14, 2009 made by the GFS model. Wind shear below about 8 m/s (roughly 15 knots, red colors) is typically needed to allow tropical storm formation. There aren't too many red-colored areas over the prime breeding grounds for tropical storms in the Atlantic over the next ten days in this forecast.
Given how quiet the tropics are at present, and the forecast of a high wind shear regime lasting until October 25, I doubt any tropical storms will form over the next ten days. If we do get something, it would probably be in the middle Atlantic between Bermuda and the Azores, far from land. However, I am still wary of the possibility of a hurricane in the Caribbean the last week of October or in November this year. There is evidence that the Atlantic hurricane season is starting earlier and ending later in recent decades. Dr. Jim Kossin of the University of Wisconsin published a paper in 2008 titled, "Is the North Atlantic hurricane season getting longer?" He concluded that yes, there is a "apparent tendency toward more common early- and late-season storms that correlates with warming Sea Surface Temperature but the uncertainty in these relationships is high". We had two major hurricanes in the Caribbean after October 15 last year, and I give a 60% chance that we'll get a named storm in the Caribbean before hurricane season ends on November 30. Hurricane season is not over--it's just in hibernation.
Happy Valley to become Yucky Valley
Winter is fast approaching, and the season's first major snowstorm for the U.S. East Coast is coming this weekend, according to the wunderblog of Wunderground's Dr. Rob Carver. Conditions will be particularly nasty on Saturday in Happy Valley, where Penn State is situated. The surrounding hills may get 4 - 12 inches of snow, and rain mixed with snow with 36°F temperatures are expected for Saturday's Penn State - Minnesota game. Ugh, winter! I'll have a forecast for the coming winter in a post sometime in the next week.
The Senate has not yet voted on the proposal to cut NOAA funding. I will post a report when the vote occurs.
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