2020: Strangest Year of Atlantic Hurricane Seasons Comes to An End

Like pretty much everything this year, the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season was an abnormality not ever seen before by meteorologists and hurricane specialists.

Source: Orlando Sentinel | Published on December 1, 2020

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As the official final day of hurricane season — Nov. 30 — arrives, forecasters have tallied 30 named storms, the most ever recorded; the next closest with 28 systems of tropical storm strength or greater was 2005.

Both 2005 and 2020 have seen the same number of systems form into a tropical depression or greater — 31 — but systems could still form past Nov. 30, like 2005’s Tropical Storm Zeta that formed on Dec. 30. The NHC continues to monitor systems year-round, and even today, forecasters give a non-tropical pressure systems in the far eastern Atlantic a 40% chance of spinning up into either a depression or storm in the next two to five days.

In addition to those records, the United States weathered 12 storms that made landfall.

Hurricane experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and at Colorado State University accurately predicted the 2020 season would be a hyperactive year, although both organizations’ forecasts were blown out of the water with the season’s grand total, 13 of which developed into hurricanes and six of which became major hurricanes, at least Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 111 mph or greater.

“It’s been a doozy of a season,” said CSU meteorologist Phil Klotzbach, who referred to himself as the ESPN of hurricane stats. “It was such a crazy active season, but I think what surprised me most was two things. First, that we had four Greek letter storms hit the U.S. I’d be surprised to ever see that record broken. And (second) possibly the most outlandish thing to happen was capping off the season with a Category 5 hurricane, Iota – that’s off the wall crazy. But so fitting for a season like this.”

Klotzbach’s surprise comes from the unlikelihood of a Category 5 hurricane forming in November when vertical wind sheer is increasing and waters are cooling down – the two jet-fuel-like factors needed to see a storm blast off in power.

The 2020 season made no secret to hurricane specialists that it would indeed be special and unlike previous tropical periods.

The tea leaves for a hyperactive season revealed themselves in the form of warmer-than-average Atlantic sea surface temperatures, a stronger west African monsoon, along with much weaker vertical wind shear and wind patterns coming off of Africa.

Signs also pointed to a weak La Niña, which is a ocean-atmosphere cooling phenomenon.

The season’s hyperactive storm formations began 15 days before the June 1 start of the season with Tropical Storm Arthur. Quickly following in the storm’s footsteps was Tropical Storm Bertha on May 27, which developed quickly off North Carolina’s shore.

From there, the records just kept unfolding.

The season hit the floor running developing a record nine storms between May and July, the latter month seeing the first hurricane of the season, Category 1 Hurricane Hanna, which made landfall in south Texas.

Florida’s Gulf Coast was lashed by six different storms: Tropical Storm Cristobal, Hurricane Hanna, Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Marco, Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Delta.

In particular Category 4 Laura, the first major hurricane of the season, brought significant amount of damage to the southern Louisiana area just after the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation hit New Orleans.

Initial reports show 77 people died, most in the U.S., but also from damage it inflicted on Haiti on its way to the Gulf Coast.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned residents they were in for a long recovery, with 324,000 power outages across the state and 600,000 people either without water or under boil water advisories, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, stifling heat and humidity were adding to the trouble of clearing out debris, patching roofs and rebuilding work, which is estimated at about $15 billion.

About 67,000 people applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Association. Another 6,500 were still in shelters as over a month later.

The effects of Laura were exacerbated when Category 2 Hurricane Delta ran through Louisiana in October moving along a very similar path to Laura.

Florida was not spared during the 2020 season.

The Florida panhandle took a hit from Category 2 Hurricane Sally’s slow movement and heavy rains when it made landfall in Gulf Shores, Alabama just 15 miles west of the Florida border. Floridian homeowners and public structures suffered property damage including the Santa Rosa County Three-Mile Bridge which lost a section after Sally pushed a barge into a bridge pillar causing it to fall into Gulf waters.

Farther south, Hurricane Eta went through a roller-coaster-like development, first hitting Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane, and then degenerating, redeveloping and degenerating again into a tropical storm before making landfall in Lower Matecumbe Key, in the Florida Keys on Nov. 9.

The storm brought massive flooding throughout South Florida, and then again three days later to the Tampa area when it made a second Florida landfall.

While the U.S. experienced a record number of storms, Klotzbach considers the 2020 season a “dodged bullet.”

“We didn’t have one cataclysmic economic disaster. None of the storms made landfall in densely populated areas. Louisiana people went through hell, but if New Orleans had been hit, we’re talking huge damages,” Klotzbach said.

While the season is still being studied by NOAA scientists, a rough estimate of 2020 damages falls between $35 and $40 billion.

It’s not a lot considering Hurricane Harvey, which tore through Houston was responsible for $130 billion alone in 2017.

Still the season is a cause for concern, as it is the fifth consecutive year with an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, with 18 above-normal seasons out of the past 26.

“This increased hurricane activity is attributed to the warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, which began in 1995 — and has favored more, stronger, and longer-lasting storms since that time,” NOAA said in a release. “Such active eras for Atlantic hurricanes have historically lasted about 25 to 40 years. An average season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three major hurricanes.”

In the idea that climate change may be fueling more active storm seasons, Klotzbach says their just isn’t enough data yet to draw definitive conclusions. One reason why there are more storms simply might be the fact that scientists have more advanced equipment to identify more storms.

Klotzbach expects to see seasons with lower than average tropical development eventually such as 2014, which only saw eight named storms.

The NOAA’s final report on the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season will be made later in 2021.

However, some conclusions can be made such as how rising sea levels will likely contribute to farther reaching storm surges.

“It’s hard to make any conclusions on the future yet, especially just based on one season. I do think it’s likely we will continue to see stronger, and higher echelon storms,” he said. “The question now is will the (World Meteorological Organization) increase its storm name list beyond 24 names. We’ll see.”