South Florida’s 2016 hurricane season, which officially ends Wednesday, may be remembered most for a streak and a wobble.
In September, Hermine ended Florida’s 11-year hurricane-free streak when it made landfall in the tiny Big Bend town of St. Mark’s after lashing the west coast from Hillsborough County to the Panhandle. A month later, after slamming Haiti as a deadly Category 4 storm, Hurricane Matthew took aim at Florida, with a potential strike zone stretching from north of Miami to West Palm Beach. But as it neared Andros Island 150 miles away, Matthew wobbled when its eyewall collapsed.
The storm never regained strength, sparing the state, and the U.S., from a potentially devastating strike by a major hurricane.
But big news can sometimes be relative. Among forecasters, the season will also be remembered for yet again failing to predict Matthew’s swift transformation into a monster storm, which pounded Haiti's Tiburon Peninsula, killing hundreds and leaving at least 175,000 homeless.
“The big story is the Florida hurricane drought is over, but a bigger story is once again we failed to forecast rapid intensification of storms about to make landfall,” said Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters. “Matthew went to a Cat 5 and that was not forecast at all. Nicole also wasn’t [expected to intensify]. So we’ve still got a long way to go.”
The season will also go down as one of the longest, with an early preamble from Hurricane Alex, which formed in January deep in the North Atlantic Ocean southwest of the Azores, and Hurricane Otto, which just last week became the latest storm ever to form in the Caribbean.
By almost every measure, the 2016 season was busy. Not only was there an above average number of storms, with 15 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes, but the accumulated energy from cyclones — all the wind energy combined — was 30 percent above average, Masters said. Blame dry air and warm water. Those warm ocean temperatures also helped power Alex early — which some meteorologists say technically could be classified as a 2015 system.
The first system to strike Florida came early in June, when fast-moving Tropical Storm Colin zipped across the Panhandle. In August, Hurricane Earl rolled through the Caribbean, killing 13 in the Dominican Republic and more than 50 in Mexico after triggering deadly mudslides. Later in the month, Hurricane Gaston became the first major hurricane of the season. Just six days later Hermine formed.
Within a week in September, Tropical Storms Ian, Julia, Karl and Lisa appeared. Julia, the only system to impact the U.S., became the first tropical storm to ever form inland over Florida. The season ended with a punishing farewell: Matthew and Nicole, two back-to-back major hurricanes in October.
With so many storms forming this year, Masters said hurricane experts are still trying to figure out whether the Atlantic is in the midst of an active hurricane pattern that began in 1995. Last year, the season fell below the average of 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major storms, suggesting it might be over. This year proved differently.
The year also introduced new tools from the National Hurricane Center, which issues its year-end wrap-up Wednesday, including storm surge warnings. This month, the National Weather Service also launched its Goes-R satellite, the sophisticated new weather spacecraft able to provide global images five times faster than existing satellites at a higher resolution and expected to vastly improve predicting storms, including the kind of eyewall replacement that spared Florida.
Storms as intense as Matthew typically can’t maintain their eye as they swirl ever stronger and the eye shrinks, Masters said. While bigger, stronger computer models have improved intensity forecast — one of the models correctly forecast intensity in another storm, but not Matthew — they still need to improve.
“The atmosphere is full of tipping points,” Masters said. “The difference between Matthew going through an eyewall replacement, that’s a very delicate sort of forecast and if you hit it or not, that’s a huge difference in making the right forecast. Just a slight improvement can be the difference in getting that sort of all-or-nothing event correct.”
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