Already decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, coastal tourism economies are now staring down an elevated seasonal threat: Hurricanes. And while the coast of South Carolina has managed to avoid a full-frontal blow from a major hurricane for the last thirty years, make no mistake: That streak will come to an end one day.
“We anticipate that the 2020 Atlantic basin hurricane season will have above-normal activity,” CSU forecasters projected in their latest report (.pdf). “We anticipate an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States coastline and in the Caribbean.”
CSU forecasters are currently calling for 16 named storms, eight hurricanes and four major hurricanes during the upcoming season – which runs from June 1 through November 30. They aren’t the only ones expecting elevated activity. The Earth System Science Center at Penn State University is calling for twenty storms this season – while The Weather Channel is projecting 18 named storms, nine hurricanes and four major hurricanes.
An official estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be released later this month.
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For the past thirty years, Atlantic seasons have averaged 12-13 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. Last year there were 18 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes – the fourth consecutive year of above-average tropical activity in the Atlantic basin dating back to 2016.
In 2018, an average year was predicted but results exceeded expectations – with 15 storms and eight hurricanes (two of them becoming major storms).
By far the most significant system was Hurricane Florence, which did $24 billion worth of damage in North and South Carolina and killed 54 people (including nine deaths in the Palmetto State). South Carolina was hardest hit by flooding associated with the storm, which inundated the Yadkin-Pee Dee river basin two weeks after the storm made landfall near Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Hurricane forecasts for the Atlantic basin are – believe it or not – heavily influenced by water temperature in the Pacific Ocean. Specifically, El Niño and La Niña weather patterns.
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(Via: Getty Images)
El Niño is the periodic warming of the central and eastern equatorial regions of the Pacific Ocean – while La Niña refers to the cooling of the Pacific that takes place in its aftermath.
During El Niño years, hurricanes are less likely to form in the Atlantic due to increased wind shear. From 2014-2015 – when El Niño conditions prevailed – there were only nineteen named systems and ten hurricanes (four of which developed into major storms). By contrast, between 2010-12 – when La Niña conditions prevailed – there were 57 named storms and 29 hurricanes (of which eleven developed into major systems).
Meteorologists expected El Niño conditions to prevail in 2017 and 2018 – suppressing hurricane formation – but that did not happen. Now they anticipate La Niña conditions to prevail, hence the projections for a busy season.
(For more hurricane history, click here).
South Carolina has seen 24 hurricane landfalls since 1893 – the most recent being Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and the most infamous being Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (the last direct hit from a major system). Fortunately the state has avoided any direct hits from major storms since then, although there have been several close calls – including Dorian last year and Hurricane Irene in 2011.