Despite an early start, experts predict normal hurricane season

Summer is on its way, and for many North Americans that means more than steamy temperatures and sunny skies. Hurricane season — the six months during which we can expect some severe weather — is now underway. It can be a worrisome time for people who live in or own property in hurricane-prone areas. For travellers, hurricane season can mean some pretty sweet deals to tropical getaways.

This year, we’ve got a little good news: Despite some early storms, pre-season forecasts say we might see less hurricane activity than we’ve had in recent years. Here’s a look at the predictions.

What to expect in 2012

After a couple of years of “above normal” seasons in the Atlantic Basic, experts are predicting a “near normal” season for 2012. The basin includes countries along the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, Florida, the U.S. east coast and Canada’s east coast.

What’s considered normal? Based on hurricane activity from the past two decades, experts say an average Atlantic season has 12 named storms. Six of those tropical storms turn into hurricanes and three of those hurricanes develop into major hurricanes (that is, a Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.)

But let’s talk specifics: this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center says there’s a 70 per cent chance of nine to 15 named storms, four to eight of which will strengthen into a hurricane and one to three of those hurricanes is predicted to develop into a major hurricane.

As you see, these numbers aren’t exact. How active the season will be depends on a number of influences, including an ongoing trend of warmer ocean temperatures and other conditions which favour hurricane development. (Overall, we’ve been seeing more activity since 1995, say experts.)

However, a couple of factors could decrease this year’s storm activity including strong wind shear (which disrupts cyclones from forming), lower ocean surface temperatures in the far east of the basic and a potential El Niño effect developing in late August or September.

“The NOAA’s outlook predicts a less active season compared to recent years,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco in a recent NOAA press release. “But regardless of the outlook, it’s vital for anyone living or vacationing in hurricane-prone locations to be prepared.”

What about the other side of the continent? Experts also expect a near-normal season in the Eastern Pacific Basin (the west coast of Mexico and Central America). The NOAA predicts a 70 per cent chance of 12 to 18 named storms, which includes five to nine hurricanes — and two to five of are expected to become major hurricanes. We’ve seen two storms so far: Tropical Storm Aletta and Hurricane Bud.

Unfortunately, here El Niño could increase storm activity rather than decrease it.

“The eastern Pacific has gotten off to a busy and early start of the season, with Tropical Storm Aletta last week and Hurricane Bud churning off the Mexican coast this week,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, in a May 24 press release. “NOAA’s seasonal hurricane outlook gives people an idea of how the season will likely unfold so they will be prepared and equipped to respond when disaster strikes. Despite our predictions, it only takes one hurricane to cause a lot of damage and loss of life if people aren’t prepared.”

What about North American parts of the Central Pacific Basin (like Hawaii)? Once again, experts are predicting a below-normal season. The NOAA predicts two to four tropical cyclones to develop — just short of the normal four to five. (This number includes weaker cyclones known as tropical depressions as well as tropical storms and hurricanes.) Despite 2009’s scare with Hurricane Felicia, storms rarely hit land.

Hurricane predictions more than statistics

If those numbers sound a big vague, it’s important to remember that they are guidelines only. They don’t tell us anything about when or where storms will strike — or how severe they will be. Even in below-normal seasons, major hurricanes can cause devastation and loss of life when they hit land. Even when a severe storm is on the radar, experts can’t say with 100 per cent certainty how strong it will be and what path it will follow. This information can change on a hourly basis.

Don’t let the names fool you either: Both tropical storms and hurricanes are tropical cyclones and have the potential to be dangerous. The difference between the two is speed and strength, but any cyclone can cause devastation when it makes landfall. Storm surges, heavy rains, flooding and landslides are a very real risk. (For an explanation of the terms used to describe tropical weather disturbances, see the NOAA website.)

Typically, 80 per cent of cyclone activity happens from mid-August to end of September but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent the rest of the season. (Cyclones don’t pay much attention to dates, after all.) Severe storms can be a risk early and late in the season.

The bottom line: the number of storms doesn’t make a whole lot of difference — all it takes is one severe storm to cause damage and death. Whether you live in, own property or plan to travel to an area affected by hurricanes, experts say the onus is on you to be prepared.


For more information about hurricane preparedness, see:

Your Hurricane Action Plan
Government of Canada: Get Prepared
NOAA: Hurricane Preparedness Hurricanes