NOAA Predicts ‘Busy’ Atlantic Hurricane Season for Fifth Year in a Row

Disaster responses are also likely to be complicated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to FEMA and the Red Cross

Tropical Storm Arthur 2014
A satellite photo of Tropical Storm Arthur in the Atlantic Ocean on July 2, 2014. Another tropical storm named Arthur threatened the Outer Banks of North Carolina earlier this week. NOAA via Getty Images

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center announced in a statement that they expect this year's Atlantic hurricane season will produce more storms than usual. That could mean as many as 19 named storms and as many as six major hurricanes at a time when the United States is already reeling from COVID-19, report John Schwartz and Christopher Flavelle for the New York Times. (For reference, an average season yields 12 named storms and six hurricanes, with three becoming major hurricanes.)

If 2020’s Atlantic hurricane season turns out to be unusually active, it would be the fifth year in a row with above average storm activity, reports Andrew Freedman for the Washington Post. The chances of the season turning mild sit at just 10 percent.

2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook

Should any storms make landfall in the United States, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will likely stymie the federal response. Carlos J. Castillo, acting deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), indicated on a call with reporters that the pandemic could make responding to hurricanes more challenging, reports the Times.

A document issued last week says FEMA will “minimize the number of personnel deploying to disaster-impacted areas” during hurricane season.

The statement tells state and local governments to prepare by “supporting health and medical systems that are already stressed, with an expectation that those emergency services will continue to be taxed into hurricane season,” according to the Times.

Hurricane shelters will present a particular challenge. Typically, local gymnasiums, church basements and other venues have been used as "congregate shelters" that cover nearly all available floor space with rows of cots to accommodate as many people as possible, reports the Times. This strategy does not dovetail with social distancing and could create hotbeds of disease.

The American Red Cross tells the Times they are “prioritizing individual hotel rooms over congregate shelters.” If individual rooms cease to be an option, the Red Cross tells the Times that “additional safety precautions” such as health screenings, masks, added space between cots as well as more stringent disinfecting will be deployed to make group shelters safer.

The season officially begins on June 1, but for the sixth year running the Atlantic has already cooked up a named storm—tropical storm Arthur, which slapped North Carolina’s Outer Banks with high winds, heavy rain, big surf and coastal flooding earlier this week, reports Matthew Cappucci for the Washington Post.

Another forecast from Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, estimates there will be 13 to 24 named storms, with 20 being the researchers’ “best guess,” reports Oliver Milman for the Guardian. Twenty named storms would make 2020 one of the most active hurricane years on record.

In April, researchers from Colorado State also predicted 2020 would be stormy in the Atlantic, with a 70 percent chance of at least one major hurricane, with winds that reach 111 miles per hour or higher, making landfall in the United States, Cappucci reported for the Washington Post in early April.

The waters of the Pacific Ocean are predicted to be cool due to a La Niña climate event, Jhordanne Jones, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University tells the Guardian, which may cause a “seesawing effect” that warms the waters of the Atlantic, creating conditions known to spawn hurricanes. The Post also reports NOAA based its outlook on warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, an above-average West African monsoon season and below-average wind shear across the Atlantic.

Last week, the Times’ Henry Fountain reported on a new study in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that adds to the growing body of research suggesting that climate change is making hurricanes more severe across the globe.

In a statement, Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, says, “If we want to keep these dangerous patterns from accelerating, we need urgent action by government and private sector leaders to shift us away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.