Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Professor Quibb's Picks – 2018

My personal prediction for the 2018 North Atlantic hurricane season (written May 16, 2018) is as follows:

18 cyclones attaining tropical depression status,
16 cyclones attaining tropical storm status,
8 cyclones attaining hurricane status, and
4 cyclones attaining major hurricane status.

In the wake of the especially devastating 2017 season, it is difficult to predict with any certainty the outcomes for this year. Once again, models indicate that the El Niño Southern Oscillation Index (or ENSO index) will be near zero or slightly positive during this hurricane season. This index, which is a certain quantitative measure of sea surface temperature anomalies in the tropical Pacific Ocean, has some ability to predict Atlantic hurricane activity. A positive index indicates an El Niño event, which tends to correlate with higher wind shear across the Atlantic basin and less tropical cyclone development. This effect is especially pronounced in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. The image below shows the ENSO forecast for this season (image from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society):

However, last year's forecast was qualitatively similar, but the index ended up dipping back negative and leaving very favorable conditions for hurricane formation. Though consideration of the ENSO index alone would lead to the prediction of an average hurricane season, there is significant uncertainty. Overall, I consider the ENSO to mainly a neutral factor this year.

Present ocean temperatures in the Atlantic are slightly above average in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and significantly above average in the subtropical Atlantic and near the U.S. east coast. However, there is a large area of below average temperatures in the tropical Atlantic which is forecast by long-term models to possibly persist for a few months. The tropical Atlantic has also been dry and stable, in contrast to elevated storm activity in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. These trends also show some signs of persisting into the beginning of hurricane season. I therefore expect a slow start to the season in the main development region of the tropical Atlantic (extending from Africa to the Caribbean) and a corresponding lack of Cape Verde or long-track hurricanes, though these could appear more in late September and October. There is significant potential for formation in areas closer to land, so I expect some shorter lived hurricanes in the northern Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico and U.S. east coast regions.

My estimated risks for different parts of the Atlantic basin are as follows (with 1 indicating very low risk, 5 very high, and 3 average):

U.S. East Coast: 5

The jet stream over the U.S. has been weaker than usual so far this season, and the Bermuda high stronger. However, with a weak El Nino possibly developing, long hurricane tracks westward into the Gulf still seem unlikely. The east coast, in contrast, is at a greater risk. Ocean temperatures offshore are anomalously warm and region will be very moist, suggesting a fairly high probability of tropical cyclone impacts.

Yucatan Peninsula and Central America: 3
The western Caribbean shows some signs of being a fertile area for cyclonogenesis, but with prevailing upper-level patterns as they are, it is difficult to see strong system taking due westward tracks into central America. Compared to the last few years, strong hurricanes are less of a threat, though the potential for flooding rains may be equal or greater.

Caribbean Islands: 2
As discussed above, the main development region may remain quiet for at least the first half of hurricane season. This would insulate the Caribbean islands from the approach of Cape Verde hurricanes to the west, but does not preclude development occurring locally. Nevertheless, it is somewhat more likely this year that the islands will receive a break from intense hurricane landfalls, especially the easternmost islands.

Gulf of Mexico: 3
Factors in the Gulf point in different directions. Ocean waters are warm and will likely continue to be so, particularly in eddies originating in the northern Caribbean (which also happens to be a likely source of Gulf hurricanes). On the other side, if an El Niño does develop, the Gulf of Mexico is where the suppression of hurricane activity would be most felt. Putting this together suggests a near-average risk this year.

Overall, the 2018 season is expected to be a bit above average; it should not be a repeat of the devastating 2017 season, but many areas such as the U.S. east coast may still be at high risk. Further, this is just an informal forecast and uncertainty in the outcome remains significant. Everyone in hurricane-prone areas should still take due precautions as hurricane season approaches. Dangerous storms may still occur even in overall quiet seasons.


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