For those still grappling with the devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria last year, be warned:
The 2018 hurricane season may not offer a reprieve.
Researchers at Colorado State University predict the upcoming Atlantic Ocean hurricane season could, again, be above average. That means more storms, and more storms of a greater severity, could form this year.
CSU’s forecast, issued in early April, is traditionally one of the first looks at the upcoming Atlantic storm season. More forecasts will be released, and as the official June 1 start of hurricane season draws closer, researchers will develop more detailed outlooks.
Last year’s Atlantic storm season was among the strongest seasons on record. That doesn’t mean Florida will definitely get hit by a storm this summer. But the state has suffered direct hits from hurricanes two years in a row, and another strong season would suggest the Atlantic Ocean remains in a period of hyperactivity.
2018 TAMPA BAY TIMES HURRICANE GUIDE: LESSONS FROM IRMA
CSU’s Department of Atmospheric Science Tropical Meteorology Project’s forecast calls for 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes. A major hurricane is a Category 3 storm or greater, with winds at least 111 mph. A typical season sees 12 named storms, 6.5 hurricanes and two majors.
The forecast also calls for 70 days during which a named storm will be present, 30 hurricane days and seven major hurricane days. Median seasons see about 60 named storm days, 21 hurricane days and four major hurricane days.
The season officially starts June 1 and runs until Nov. 30, though storms have formed before and after that window.
The season’s activity level hangs balanced between two variables, said CSU research scientist and forecast lead author Phil Klotzbach. Both Atlantic and Pacific water temperatures work in tandem, or against each other, to produce a strong or weak season. This year, Klotzbach said, could bring a dangerous combination of high water temperature and low wind strength.
Atlantic waters were abnormally cool in January and February because high winds at the ocean’s surface churned up cold water from below, Klotzbach said. But after a round of heavy snowstorms in the northeastern U.S., the weather patterns shifted and the winds died down which has allowed the water to start warming up.
The last few years, Atlantic waters have started the year colder than normal but have significantly warmed in the spring and summer, Klotzbach said. If the trend continues this year, it will likely make conditions ripe for hurricanes, which feed off warm water.
Pacific waters, alternatively, are cold and forecasted to stay cool. Warm Pacific waters, known as El Niño, create high-altitude winds over the Atlantic Ocean, which rip apart storms before they can coalesce into cyclones. But Klotzbach said Pacific water temperatures will likely be neutral or only slightly warm, meaning wind sheer will be weak.
"If you look at how cold it is in the Pacific right now, there’s just not enough time to get a real strong El Niño," Klotzbach said.
That could mean another bruising year. Last year’s season was a top 10 hurricane season by nearly every metric, Klotzbach said. Harvey, which hit Texas, was directly responsible for 68 deaths and caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Irma, which struck the Caribbean before marching up Florida’s spine, killed 44 people and caused more than $50 million in damage, the center said.
Puerto Rico is still grappling with the aftermath of Maria. The center’s latest estimate says the hurricane inflicted $90 billion worth of damage on Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The storm is also now believed to have battered higher elevations with Category 5 winds. At least 70,000 homes were destroyed and as of March an estimated 150,000 homes remained without power. And the final death toll — the government’s official tally of 65 deaths has been disputed — could end up in the hundreds.
2018 TIMES HURRICANE GUIDE: GET READY FOR STORM SEASON:
Klotzbach warned Floridians not to get a false sense of security after Irma, which was at one time the strongest storm ever in the open Atlantic Ocean but caused significantly less damage than experts feared. That’s because it hit Cuba before Florida, and the Caribbean island weakened the storm.
The next storm might find a clear path to the Sunshine State.
"All that water that got blown out of Tampa Bay, it came back at a nice sedate pace" because the south side of the storm had weakened, Klotzbach said. "Don’t think that the next time it’s necessarily going to do that."
Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon.