Gazebo Gazette

Much like last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts an above-average 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, which does not surprise University of Southern Mississippi (USM) geography professors David Holt and Tommy Patterson.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says to expect between 14-21 named storms, including 6-10 hurricanes and 3-6 major hurricanes packing sustained winds of at least 111 miles per hour. The 2022 hurricane season officially begins June 1.

Holt and Patterson have conducted ample research on the history of hurricane development, including the factors that create climates conducive to major storms. They agree that conditions are ripe for another active Atlantic hurricane season.

“The hurricane forecasts take into account several features and the 2022 season has a two-thirds chance of being above average in terms of named systems,” said Patterson, Assistant Professor in USM’s School of Biological, Environmental and Earth Sciences. “This higher-than-normal forecast is based on warmer-than-average temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean, persistent La Niña conditions, weak trade winds, and an enhanced African Monsoon.”

Adds Holt, Associate Professor in the School of Coastal Resilience at USM’s Gulf Park campus: “Here, La Niña (the pair of the more famous El Niño) is hanging around. La Niña started in the 2020-21 year and will be running through 2022, maybe 2023. El Niño is the Pacific Ocean moving its usual warm water mass on the western side to the eastern side, where it warms up the Pacific Ocean nearer to South and Central America. La Niña is when the Pacific Ocean resets and the normally warm western pacific waters get warmer, and the eastern Pacific waters get colder than normal. We are in a multi-year strong La Niña.”

This year’s NOAA predictions come on the heels of six consecutive above-average seasons, including 2021 — the third-most active season ever recorded. Last year, 21 named storms (tropical storms with 39+ mph sustained winds or hurricanes with 74+ mph sustained winds) formed in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico, including eight that made landfall in the United States.

Which begs the question: are certain climate changes causing an increase in hurricanes?

“This question has been debated. Does warmer weather increase hurricanes? Or does it just increase the probability that the conditions are better for the likelihood of hurricanes becoming stronger,” said Holt. “There are many factors in each hurricane that will determine landfall, storm surge, wind speed, velocity, etc. Each storm is its own storm.”

The Gulf Coast, which was bombarded during the 2020 season, experienced six landfalls in 2021, including four tropical storms and two hurricanes – Elsa and Ida. In fact, Ida made landfall in southeastern Louisiana 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Some reports suggest that the conditions in the Gulf of Mexico are strikingly similar to 2005 when Katrina came ashore. Patterson has seen those dire indications.

“Yes, and this does not look great. This concerns the warm Gulf Loop current,” said Patterson. “In general, the warm water that circumnavigates the Gulf is both deeper than average and warmer than average. Hurricanes gain their energy over warm water, thus these conditions support strong and rapid development for Gulf systems that pass over the currents. A recent example of this was Hurricane Ida last year. That system intensified from a Category 1 to a Category 4 over the course of 24 hours, largely due to passage over a warm pool of water in the Gulf.”

Improvements in computer-based numerical weather prediction models have led to better hurricane forecast accuracy by NOAA. Today’s average 5-day track forecast by the National Weather Service is as good as the 3-day track forecast was 10 years ago.

Holt points out that this year’s forecast of 3-6 major storms represents a wide range and does not include predictions of where any hurricanes might land.

“A Cat-5 that stays in the Atlantic does not impact the Gulf,” said Holt. “Forecasts and the ‘cone of uncertainty’ has gotten better, but it really is only good for a few days out. Too many weather conditions can change. We have to see how it develops. To sum up: pay attention every year, be prepared, don’t underestimate a storm. It is better to be safe than sorry.”