Whipping winds, torrential downpours, power outages and floods — hurricane season in the Atlantic brings a host of dramatic and dangerous weather with it.
But when exactly does the Atlantic hurricane season start and how long does it last? And what can people do to prepare in the face of the most dangerous storms on Earth? From hurricane naming conventions to staying safe in a storm, we’ll detail all you need to know about this year’s hurricane season. (The Atlantic saw its first storm of the season on May 20, and it’s called subtropical storm Andrea.)
Hurricanes so far this season:
Note: Hurricane Lane is in the Pacific Ocean, and therefore takes its name from a different list than North Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico hurricanes.
How they form
Hurricanes are tropical cyclones. When a tropical cyclone’s sustained winds reach 39 to 73 mph (63 to 118 km/h), it is considered a tropical storm and it gets a name from a list put out by the World Meteorological Organization. Once those sustained winds reach 74 to 95 mph (119 to 153 km/h), that storm becomes a Category 1 hurricane. According to the Saffir-Simpson scale, here are the sustained winds linked to categories 2 through 5 hurricanes:
2019 hurricane outlook
Officially, the Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1 and runs until Nov. 30. In the Eastern Pacific Ocean, hurricane season begins May 15 and ends Nov. 30, according to the National Weather Service. However, most of these storms hit during peak hurricane season between August and October, on both coasts, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
On May 23, NOAA released its forecast for the 2019 hurricane season, predicting that the season would be be near-normal, with a a 30% chance of an above-normal season and a 30% chance of a below-normal season.
Hurricane scientists at Colorado State University predicted a slightly below-average Atlantic hurricane season in 2019, they announced April 4. The researchers noted the high chance of a weak El Niño as a primary factor. According to their analyses, the tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures are slightly below their long-term average values, which makes this region an unfavorable place for hurricane production, they said in the statement.
In all, the CSU team predicted that 2019 would have 13 named storms in the Atlantic Ocean, including five that would become hurricanes. Of these, they expect two to become major hurricanes that reach Category 3 or higher.
To make their predictions, scientists analyze a host of factors, from wind speed to sea surface temperatures. Because the El Niño/La Niña cycle typically materializes in summer or early fall, forecasts done too early have limited meaning, Bell said. [A History of Destruction: 8 Great Hurricanes]
The Climate Prediction Center classifies hurricane seasons as above-normal (between 12 and 28 tropical storms and between seven and 15 hurricanes); near-normal (Between 10 and 15 tropical storms and between four and nine hurricanes) and below-normal (Between four and nine tropical storms and two to four hurricanes).
During this season, according to NOAA, there is a 70% chance of 2019 having between nine and 15 named storms, of which four to eight could become hurricanes. Of these, two to four could become major hurricanes, with winds of 11 mph (179 km/h) or higher.
Last year was an above average hurricane season, with 15 named storms, including eight hurricanes of which two were major — hurricanes Michael and Florence, NOAA reported last November, at the end of the season. [Hurricane Florence: Photos of a Monster Storm]
In September, Hurricane Florence caused immense flooding in parts of North and South Carolina. It took two to three weeks for many rivers in those areas to fall below flood stage, NOAA reported. Florence also helped set a record; the 2018 hurricane season was the first since 2008 to have four named storms active simaltaneously (Florence, Helene, Isaac and Joyce).
In October, Hurricane Michael reached Category 4 status, making it the strongest hurricane on record to hit the Florida panhandle. It was also the third-most-intense hurricane to make landfall in the continental U.S. on record in terms of central pressure (919 mb) and the fourth-strongest in terms of maximum sustained winds of 155 mph (249 km/h).
Which cities get hit the most by hurricanes?
According to HurricaneCity, a hurricane-tracking website, here are the top 10 cities most frequently hit or affected by hurricanes since record-keeping began in 1871:
Tropical storm categories
Once a storm has wind speeds of 38 mph (58 km/h), it is officially a tropical storm. At 74 mph (119 km/h), the storm has reached hurricane levels.
At that point, scientists use a 1 to 5 scale known as the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale to classify hurricane strength, with category 1 being the least severe hurricanes and category 5 being the strongest. Some scientists have also proposed adding a category 6 to account for storms that are well beyond the highest sustained wind speed for a category 5 hurricane.
Sustained wind speed (mph)
Minimal, with some roof leakage, gutter damage, snapped tree branches and toppled trees with shallow roots
Moderate, with major roof and siding damage; uprooted trees could block roads; power loss possible for days to weeks
Devastating damage, with gable and decking damage, many more uprooted trees and extended power outages
Catastrophic damage; roofs and exterior walls will be destroyed; trees will snap; power outages for weeks to months. Large area uninhabitable for weeks or months
157 or higher
High fraction of framed houses will be destroyed; power outages for weeks to months; and huge swaths uninhabitable for same period
How hurricanes are named
Hurricanes initially were named in honor of the feast day for a Catholic saint. For instance, Hurricane San Felipe occurred on Sept. 13, 1876, or the feast day of Saint Phillip, according to the National Hurricane Center. Hurricanes that struck on the same day would be distinguished by a suffix placed on the later one, Live Science previously reported. For example, a storm that struck on Sept. 13, 1928, was dubbed Hurricane San Felipe II, to distinguish it from the 1876 storm.
However, by the 1950s, the naming convention changed and in the U.S., hurricanes were given female names based on the international alphabet, according to the NHC. The practice of calling storms by female names only was abandoned in 1978.
Despite the seemingly open-ended possibilities, meteorologists do not have free reign in deciding names. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has a long list of alphabetical storm names that repeats on a six-year cycle. The organization aims for clear and simple names. Names are in English, Spanish, Dutch and French, to account for the many languages spoken by people potentially affected by hurricanes.
“Experience shows that the use of short, distinctive given names in written as well as spoken communications is quicker and less subject to error than the older, more cumbersome, latitude-longitude identification methods. These advantages are especially important in exchanging detailed storm information between hundreds of widely scattered stations, coastal bases and ships at sea,” the organization says on its website.
If a storm was so devastating that using the name again would be insensitive, the group meets and agrees to strike the name from the list.
For instance, people don’t have to worry about facing the wrath of a Hurricane Katrina, Ike, Hattie or Opal again, because those names have been retired, according to the NHC.
For the 2019 hurricane season, the following hurricane names could come into play in the North Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, according to the WMO:
How to prepare
Staying safe during the hurricane season starts with a simple step: Have a plan. People can plan for hurricanes using a simple guide at Ready.gov. Plans need to be worked out for all family members. And for those animal lovers out there, Fido and Mr. Whiskers also need an escape plan.
This plan includes figuring out how to determe whether it’s safe to hunker down at home during a storm or whether you are in an evacuation zone. If so, there is likely a specific route you should take in the event of an evacuation, as many roads may be closed, Live Science previously reported.
If you are in an evacuation zone, you also need to figure out accommodations during the storm — this could be anything from staying with family and friends to renting a motel to staying in a shelter.
Family members often have trouble reaching each other during hurricanes, so determining a preset meeting place and protocol can be helpful. Sometimes, local cellphone lines are overloaded during a storm, so consider texting. Another alternative is to have a central out-of-state contact who can relay messages between separated family members.
During a storm, pets should be leashed or placed in a carrier, and their emergency supplies should include a list of their vaccinations as well as a photo in case they get lost, according to the Humane Society for the United States. Also important is finding someone who can care for them, in the event that a hotel or shelter does not accept pets. During an emergency, they should also be wearing a collar with the information of an out-of-state contact in case they get separated from you, according to the HSUS.
Storm-proof your home
Anyone who lives in a hurricane-prone area would do well to protect their property in advance of a flood. Because hurricanes often cause their damage when trees fall on property, homeowners can reduce the risk of damage by trimming trees or removing damaged trees and limbs, according to Ready.gov.
Another easy step is to make sure rain gutters are fixed in place and free of debris. Reinforcing the roof, doors and windows, including a garage door, is also important, according to Ready.gov.
Power generators can also be an important tool if the power is cut off for long periods of time. A power generator needs to be kept outside, as they produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
People who are very serious about prevention may even consider building a “safe room” — a fortified room designed to withstand the punishing winds of a tornado or hurricane, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency pamphlet “Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room for Your Home or Small Business,” (FEMA, 2014).
People living in hurricane country also need to have a stash of emergency supplies, ideally placed in multiple locations throughout a dwelling. According to Ready.gov, a basic disaster kit should include:
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Whipping winds, torrential downpours, power outages and floods — hurricane season in the Atlantic brings a host of dramatic and dangerous weather with it. But when exactly does the Atlantic hurricane season start and how long does it last? And what can people do to prepare in the face of the most dangerous storms on Earth? From hurricane naming conventions to staying safe in a storm, we’ll detail all you need to know about this year’s hurricane season. (The Atlantic saw its first storm of the season on May 20, and it’s called subtropical storm Andrea.) Hurricanes so far this season: Note: Hurricane Lane is in the Pacific Ocean, and therefore takes its name from a different list than North Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico hurricanes.
Hurricane season 2018