Buckle up – conditions are ripe for an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season, with 13 to 20 named storms, according to NOAA.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration released its outlook for the 2021 season, which starts on June 1, in a webinar on Thursday that also featured officials from the Commerce Department, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Of the 13 to 20 named storms, six to 10 are predicted to become hurricanes and three to five are expected to be major hurricanes, meaning a Category 3 or stronger, acting NOAA Administrator Ben Friedman said.
The good news, relatively speaking, is that based on current data and analysis, forecasters do not expect the 2021 hurricane season to be as active as 2020, which had 30 named storms, said Matthew Rosencrans, hurricane season outlook lead at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
“However, we do update our Atlantic seasonal outlook in August, as we do each year, before we move into the peak of hurricane season during August, September and October,” he said, so the forecast could change.
“There are several factors that we took into consideration in developing the May outlook,” Rosencrans said. “Last year’s busy season was a clear reflection of the ongoing high-activity era, which began in 1995 and continues to be a factor in our outlook for 2021,” he said.
According to NOAA, high-activity eras – they occurred from 1880 to 1900, 1945 to 1975 and now 1995 to present – are associated with the warm phase of what is known as the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, or AMO, when North Atlantic Ocean temperatures are warmer. Conversely, low-activity eras coincide with a cooler AMO phase and quieter hurricane seasons.
“Typically, the high-activity era conditions include warmer than average sea surface temperatures, weaker trade winds in the Atlantic hurricane main development region, as well as weaker vertical wind shear and an enhanced West African monsoon,” Rosencrans said.
Additionally, the tropical Pacific Ocean is currently in a neutral El Niño-Southern Oscillation phase, or ENSO, meaning neither El Niño nor La Niña is dominating, creating a more favorable environment for storms to develop, Rosencrans said. When El Niño dominates, strong upper winds from across the Atlantic shear storms before they can develop. When La Niña dominates, those winds are weaker.
“Should La Niña return later in the hurricane season, which does have the potential to occur, it could reinforce those high-activity era conditions, and increase the likelihood that we could see seasonal activity near the upper ends of our predictive ranges,” Rosencrans said.
“Last month, we updated the seasonal averages for hurricane season, based on the latest information from 1991 through 2020. Moving forward, an average Atlantic hurricane season will have 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes, reflecting data of the latest portion of the high-activity era,” Rosencrans said. The previous averages included 12 named storms, of which six became hurricanes and three of those, major hurricanes, he said.
However, “regardless of the predicted seasonal activity, it is important to remember it takes only one dangerous storm to devastate a community and lives,” said Rosencrans, who along with his fellow panelists urged everyone who lives in a hurricane zone to get prepared now for whatever may come.
“It was a mere six months ago that the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record ended, and here we are now on the cusp of a new season,” Friedman said. “If you are in a hurricane zone, now is the time to ensure that you have an evacuation plan in place, disaster supplies on hand and a plan to secure your home quickly.”
Since last season, NOAA also has improved the observations, modeling and hurricane research that are the backbone of its forecasting, Friedman said.
“In March, we upgraded our flagship global forecast system, known as the American Model, to improve hurricane forecasting, and for the first time it is coupled with a wave model that extends ocean wave forecasts from 10 days to 16 days out,” Friedman said. “Next, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are now using an upgraded storm surge model, known as P-Surge, to better predict tropical cyclone wind structure and storm size – some of the most important factors in predicting storm surge flooding,” he said.
NOAA also will be deploying the largest array of air and water systems to date to gather data to help improve its hurricane intensity forecasts and models, Friedman said.
These include “new drones that scientists will launch from NOAA hurricane hunter aircraft, that will fly into the lower part of hurricanes to capture critical data and a variety of ocean observing platforms, including sail drones, hurricane gliders, global drifters and new air-deployable technology called ALAMO floats, to gather data throughout the life cycle of tropical systems,” Friedman said.
“Finally, this summer, NOAA’s newest supercomputers will enter their final testing phase before becoming operational in early 2022. This significant upgrade will triple the capacity and double the storage of our current systems, unlocking possibilities for better hurricane forecast model guidance in the future,” Friedman said.
However, the best forecast models in the world are no substitute for just being prepared for when a storm comes, the panelists said.
“For many, unfortunately, preparing for hurricane season has become an annual ritual because you have experienced the impact of these storms so many times before,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell.
“There are two big ideas to keep in mind as you plan to ensure the safety of your family and your personal property. First, preparing yourself and your family can often prevent serious injury or even mean the difference between life and death. Preparing your home for hurricanes can mean the difference between minor damage or complete destruction,” Criswell said.
Make emergency plans not just for your household, but also for anywhere else that you spend a lot of time, such as your office or child’s daycare, Criswell said. Review and make digital copies of important documents and make sure your identifications are up to date, she said.
Of critical importance this year is to consider how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect your emergency plans, Criswell said.
“After last year’s record-setting hurricane season in the midst of a global pandemic, FEMA has adopted more virtual operations and inspections and no-contact service methods,” Criswell said. Many of the agency’s staff are getting vaccinated against the virus, and earlier this week, FEMA released updated COVID-19 operational guidance, which is available to view at the FEMA website, she said.
She urged people to download the FEMA app from Apple or Google stores and visit the government readiness website, ready.gov/hurricanes, for tips and planning tools.
Last, Criswell stressed the importance of making sure that insurance policies are up to date.
“There is no more important or valuable disaster recovery tool than having insurance. Talk with your insurance agent to fully understand your insurance policies and know what kinds of coverage that you have,” Criswell said. “Everyone can take steps now to make sure that they are prepared for the season, or any other disaster, for that matter.”