El Niño is hot. And that’s good news for the Atlantic.
Hurricane forecasters who earlier this year predicted that a potent Pacific El Niño would make for a slow Atlantic hurricane season say the weather pattern that stirs up warm water on the other side of the country is shaping up to be among the strongest in 50 years. Add cooler than normal Atlantic water and conditions for a hurricane become even more unfavorable.
“If you’re a hurricane trying to form, I would pick an area other than the Caribbean,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at Colorado State University who produces pre-season forecasts.
So far this year there have been three tropical storms, including Claudette, which formed Monday off Massachusetts but was expected to quickly weaken and move away from the mainland. Hurricane season typically heats up in August and September but experts predict a relatively slow season.
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In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast a slower than normal season, echoing Klotzbach’s April prediction. Based on El Niño conditions, NOAA meteorologists said the Atlantic had a 70 percent chance of having six to 11 named storms. Three to six could become hurricanes and up to two could become major hurricanes with winds exceeding 111 mph.
The last time such a strong El Niño swept the Pacific was in 1997 and ended in April 1998, just before the start of the season in June. In 1997, just one hurricane, Danny, struck the U.S. But in 1998, without the smothering effects of an El Niño, the Atlantic churned up 10 storms, and led to the highest number of storm-related deaths in 200 years.
El Niños typically form every three to seven years, Klotzbach said. They happen because heat builds up in the western Pacific, which is generally warmer than the east. When the water starts moving east, it helps fuel strong upper level winds in the Atlantic that keep hurricanes from forming. This year, upper winds in the Caribbean have been fierce — the strongest recorded since 1979, he said.
The last El Niño occurred in 2009, Klotzbach said. So enough heat has been stored up to make forecasters believe this year’s event will be particularly strong, Klotzbach said.
In addition, water in the Atlantic has been colder than normal, Klotzbach said. When he provides his mid-season forecast update the first week of August, Klotzbach said he’ll likely keep his prediction the same — seven named storms, three hurricanes and possibly one major hurricane — only because it would be difficult to go any lower.
“Even if El Niño went away tomorrow, which it won’t do, we would still forecast a below normal season because the Atlantic is so cold,” he said. “When you get that combination, it’s really lethal for storms.”