The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season is humbling forecasters by shaping up as the first in almost two decades without a significant storm, confounding predictions (for the fourth year in a row) that this year would be more active than normal. We now find ourselves several weeks past the season’s statistical peak, with nothing to indicate a change on the horizon. Dry Atlantic air, unfavorable high-level winds, and a lack of major activity from the West African coast are combining to make this a boring hurricane season.
Except for Tropical Storm Andrea, which formed in the Gulf of Mexico in June and crossed Florida to New England, the United States has been spared a hit. Last year, four tropical systems struck, including Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy (the latter dubbed a “Superstorm” by the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticutt due to differences in deductibles applied), which together caused more than $52 billion in damage and killed at least 179 people.
“The season looks to be a huge bust,” says Phil Klotzbach, lead author of Colorado State University’s annual storm forecast. “That’s one of the fun things about being in the weather business. It definitely keeps you humble.” For the last four years, the CSU weather team has projected one major and multiple minor hurricane strikes on the U.S.
Colorado State pioneered seasonal hurricane outlooks. In April (and reaffirmed in August), CSU predicted an above-average eighteen storms, eight of them hurricanes and three of them major systems. NOAA also missed the boat, predicting a seventy percent chance for thirteen to nineteen storms, six to nine of them hurricanes and three to five of them major.
The predictions were based on warmer sea temperatures, a strong West African monsoon, and the lack of a Pacific El Niño, a phenomenon which can create Atlantic wind shear. However, the shear (winds that blow at different speeds or directions at varying altitudes) was and is present and has been ripping storms apart. In fact, the shear “has been relentless out there” despite the absence of an El Niño, says Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group in Bethesda, Maryland.
Mid-level relative humidity across the tropical Atlantic, typically about thirty percent, has also been lower than usual in 2013. “It’s been dry out there, and when I say dry, I mean dry,” Klotzbach says. “I’m still not quite sure why it’s been as dry as it has.” If no major hurricane–one with winds of 111 mph or more–forms in the Atlantic this year, “it will be the first time since 1994,” according to Rogers.
This year’s first hurricane, Humberto, was born at 5:00 a.m. EST on September 11, just missing the record for the latest storm formed since satellites began watching the entire Atlantic in 1967 (in 2002, Hurricane Gustav developed at 8:00 a.m. on the same day). Humberto disintegrated in the central Atlantic. Storms Chantal, Dorian, Erin and Gabrielle all dissipated when they ran into the wind shear and dry air. Because of the shear and dry air, several tropical waves never had a prayer to become full-fledged storms.
One of the few areas in the hemisphere that has been somewhat favorable for hurricane development in 2013 is the Bay of Campeche and southwest Gulf of Mexico, with storms Andrea, Barry, Fernand and Hurricane Ingrid, all of which hit Mexico.
The calmer weather has offered a reprieve for U.S. property insurers, as well as rate increases generated from the loss history due to storms of the recent past. Traveler’s Chief Executive Officer Jay Fishman said this month that his company bought back $633 million of its stock since June 30 amid lower natural disaster losses. That’s the highest amount for the insurer in a third quarter since it was formed by the 2004 merger of Travelers Property Casualty Corp. and St. Paul Co. “The third quarter, as everyone knows, has been benign and quiet from a windstorm perspective,” Fishman said September 11 at an investor conference in New York hosted by Barclays.
Dan Kottlowski, a meteorologist at AccuWeather in State College, Pennslyvania, says wind patterns are forming that will prevent any storms from developing nearby or threatening the U.S. As of now, no storm has made landfall on the Texas coast past the middle of October, due to weather fronts sweeping across Texas as fall season sets in.
While we can’t write off hurricane season altogether until early December, lower water temperatures combined with cold fronts sweeping further south this time of year usually signal the end of tropical systems. One very notable exception: Last year, Hurricane Sandy was born on October 22.
So if the weather channel folks seem sad these days, you know why. Hurricanes hitting the U.S. make for ratings bumps. And exciting photo ops.