The 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Officially Has the Most Named Storms on Record

This season’s 29th named storm, Theta, formed in the eastern Atlantic early on Tuesday

Satellite image of tropical storm Theta
Tropical Storm Theta may hit the Madeira Islands, an autonomous region of Portugal, this weekend. Courtesy of NOAA

The National Hurricane Center named Tropical Storm Theta early on Tuesday, pushing the 2020 hurricane season to a record-breaking 29 named storms. But the season has three weeks left, and another storm is brewing in the Caribbean that could be big enough to name by this weekend, meteorologist Matthew Cappucci reports for the Washington Post.

Many people have been watching this hurricane season closely since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initially predicted in May that it would be busy. Early estimates predicted up to 19 named storms, and in August NOAA revised their estimate to 25 storms. This summer saw many of the earliest named storms, and by September, the National Hurricane Center ran out of their planned names and began referring to storms as Greek letters.

The last record holding year, 2005 saw 28 named storms, including eight major hurricanes. Three of those, including Hurricane Katrina, reached Category 5 windspeeds. While this year has seen more named storms total, only five have become major hurricanes, and of those, only Laura and Eta made landfall as Category 4 storms, Curtis Segarra reports for Science News.

Meteorologists point to the rise of more sensitive technology that has allowed observers to spot more of the powerful storms in the middle of the Atlantic, even those that don’t make landfall.

“When one wants to do a fair comparison of storms now versus storms in the past, you really have to be careful about how to interpret the raw number,” says Christopher Landsea, chief of the tropical analysis and forecast branch at the National Hurricane Center, to the New York Times’ Maria Cramer. “There has been a lot of hype about the record number of storms and, yes, it’s been a busy year. There have been horrific impacts. But is this really a record? The answer is no.”

This year has had a terrible impact on communities on the Louisiana coast, where five storms have made landfall this year. That’s also a new record, one more than in 2002, when four named storms barreled through the same region.

Tropical Storm Theta is not headed toward the United States. It formed in the eastern Atlantic and it’s moving further east. The storm might weaken or stall in its path in the next few days, but by this weekend, it might hit the Madeira Islands, an autonomous region of Portugal, per the Washington Post.

Future scientific research will be able to pin down exactly what has contributed to this year’s high number of named storms, as research published in 2018 nailed down climate change’s contributions to 2017’s devastating hurricane season, Brian Kahn reports for Earther. Climate change is probably contributing to this year’s season, though, since the warmer ocean surface provides the energy that fuels storms. And a La Niña event has cooled the Pacific, which causes a see-saw pressure system effect that warms the Atlantic.

“The fuel supply could make a much stronger storm than we’ve seen,” says MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel to Science News. “So the question is: What prevents a lot of storms from living up to their potential?”

Emanuel points to wind shear, which is the difference in wind speed or direction at different altitudes, which, “doesn’t seem to have stopped a lot of storms from forming this year, but it inhibits them from getting too intense.”

There have also been occasional crowds of named storms in the Atlantic simultaneously, which can dampen the growth of the storms. On September 14, there were five storms in the Atlantic. And right now, Theta is sharing the ocean with Hurricane Eta, which is approaching Florida’s Gulf Coast, per Madeline Holcombe at CNN.

At the same time, a tropical wave system east of the Caribbean is set to combine with a weak cold front and a patch of tropical humidity that could create another swirling storm by this weekend, reports the Washington Post. The Atlantic hurricane season lasts until the end of November, and the next tropical storm, if it forms, would be named “Iota.”

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