The Climate Prediction Center projected the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season to be a busy one, and it lived up to expectations. It was the busiest and most active in recorded history. A staggering 30 named storms formed, with 12 reaching landfall in the continental United States. Of these storms, 13 became hurricanes, meaning they reached top wind speeds of at least 74 mph. The year 2005 previously held the record with 27 named storms and 14 hurricanes. That means 2020 was the busiest hurricane season but not the most intense.

The 2020 season got off to a fast start and exhausted the 21-name Atlantic list with the formation of tropical storm Wilfred. For only the second time, the World Meteorological Organization used the Greek alphabet to name storms, and they made their way through nine names on that list.

“After the historic Atlantic hurricane season of 2005, it’s remarkable to have another season during my career that would reach this extreme level of activity,” said Louis W. Uccellini, Ph.D., director of NOAA’s National Weather Service. “NOAA’s sustained investment in computer forecast models, technology, observing systems, and our skilled workforce has paid off over the last 15 years, with exponentially improved hurricane forecasts.”

Consider that the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history was the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of 1900. Sadly, the city was caught completely by surprise and the situation was compounded by poor communication. Between 6,000 and 12,000 people lost their lives and 3,600 buildings were destroyed. Thanks to weather satellites, modeling, and improved communication networks, residents would know in advance and such surprises could not happen.

In general, hurricanes have been moving further north. Experts have considered adding a Category 6 designation,  which hadn’t seemed necessary until recently. As one of the strongest storms in recorded history, Hurricane Dorian reached speeds of 180 mph in 2019.

Hurricane damage
Image courtesy of WikiImages, Pixabay

Climatic Patterns and the Atlantic

The season marks the fifth consecutive above-normal season. Scientists attribute this trend to a warm phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO). The phenomenon alters sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic, resulting in more frequent, longer-lasting, and more intense hurricanes.

AMO causes warmer and cooler phases that last 20 to 40 years. These periods are associated with relatively higher or lower hurricane activity. Not surprisingly, we are in a warm phase that started in 1996. This trend makes it more difficult to discern this phenomenon and what is caused by human activities.

Climate Change and Hurricanes

Does climate change play a role in the business of the 2020 hurricane season? Hurricanes begin to form when warm, moist air over water begins to rise. Climate scientists see a correlation between the local tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and the Power Dissipation Index (PDI), an aggregate measure of hurricane activity. Thus, analysis shows a likely correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and Atlantic hurricane activity.

Many climate change scientists, however, are confident that sea-level rise from climate change could cause a greater storm surge, resulting in more coastal flooding. Likewise, rainfall rates are very likely to increase due to climate change because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. This can boost both coastal and inland flooding.

hurricane flooding
Image courtesy of 12019 Pixabay

Racial and Socioeconomic Factors

As the density of coastal communities grows, the potential impact of extreme weather events increases. Minority and low-income communities are more vulnerable and struggle most to recover. This is partially due to living in areas more prone to flooding and that the housing itself is less durable. People with lower incomes are also less likely to be financially resilient or have flood insurance. It is also harder to relocate with limited finances. It is important to be aware of this trend as extreme weather events are likely to increase due to climate change.

Preparing for Hurricanes

There are many ways to be prepared but many suggestions include having emergency supplies on hand, creating an evacuation plan, and tuning into local news outlets. Close interior doors to help keep the wind and rain out and remove loose items from the yard. Be as far away from outside walls and windows as possible during intense storms.

Water, in the form of storm surge and flooding, can cause more damage than the wind itself. When choosing a home, consider how vulnerable it is to flooding and damage from extreme weather. Pay close attention to the roof and get a fortified roof if possible.

This short video from PBS Terra explains how hurricanes form, their evolving behavior as the planet warms, and how you can prepare for hurricanes.

Feature image courtesy of 12019 Pixabay

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.