In most years, hurricane exercise would have wound down by now. Not in 2020
A boy rides a bicycle along a flooded street due to the heavy rains caused by Hurricane Eta, now degraded to a tropical storm, in Puerto Barrios, Izabal 310 km north Guatemala City on November 5, 2020.
Johan Ordonez | AFP | Getty Images
Hurricane Eta has slowly churned through Central America this week, flooding homes, collapsing buildings and leaving at least 57 people dead, according to reports.
Expected to redevelop and head toward Cuba and Florida next week, Eta is the 28th named storm and the 12th hurricane during a brutal Atlantic hurricane season. A record number of storms have damaged parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast, Central America and elsewhere with no signs of slowing down yet.
During most years, hurricane activity would have long since waned by now. But in 2020, with about a month left of the official hurricane season, forecasters anticipate even more storms to form.
There have been so many named storms this year that the World Meteorological Organization ran out of hurricane names in the alphabet in September and resorted to using Greek letters.
With Eta, the 2020 season is now tied with 2005 for the greatest number of named storms. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma made landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast. But scientists say this year will almost certainly break the 2005 record in the upcoming weeks.
“The odds of the Atlantic named storm record being broken are relatively high,” said Phil Klotzbach, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “The large-scale atmospheric conditions continue to look conducive for additional storm development in the Caribbean.”
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Major storms forming this late in the 2020 season is remarkable and Eta’s intensity is particularly rare for a November storm.
Major hurricanes Delta, Epsilon and Eta all struck since Oct. 1, breaking a previous record of just two major Atlantic hurricanes occurring in October, according to Klotzbach.
One culprit of such high hurricane activity late in the season is the La Nina event in the tropical Pacific, which has reduced vertical wind shear — or the change in wind direction with height — that typically impedes hurricane formation.
Clinton and Randal Ream with their son Saylor and daughter Nayvie and two neighbors Aubrey Miller and Harmony Morgan at their home in a small trailer park in West Pensacola. The area received a lot of damage after Hurricane Sally came through as a category 2 hurricane in Pensacola, La. on September 16th, 2020.
Bryan Tarnowski | The Washington Post via Getty Images
Eta is also the ninth named storm and fifth consecutive hurricane to rapidly intensify this year, a phenomenon that has doubled in proportion since 1982. Models indicate that climate change increases the probability of storms rapidly intensifying as tropical oceans heat up.
“As the ‘speed limit’ on storms increases, storms also accelerate faster to that top speed — imagine a car starting from a stoplight in a 25 mph versus a 55 mph road,” said Gabriel Vecchi, a Princeton climate scientist and co-author of a report on hurricane intensity and global warming.
“Rapidly intensifying hurricanes are potentially quite dangerous, because [rapid intensifying] tends to be difficult to predict and a seemingly modest storm can overnight become very intense, leaving people limited time to plan and react,” Vecchi said.
The U.S. Gulf Coast has been pummeled by storms this year. Hurricane Laura in August crushed entire homes and killed over a dozen people in Louisiana, followed by Hurricane Delta in the beginning of October that unleashed more destruction for people still trying to recover. Hurricane Zeta also lashed the Southern states at the end of October and caused at least six deaths.
Residents in the Gulf states have endured significant loss and long months of negotiating for insurance money and help to fix damaged properties and businesses.
Damages from Laura are estimated at between $8 billion and $12 billion, Delta between $700 million and $1.2 billion, and Zeta between $2.5 billion and $4 billion, according to property data analysis firm CoreLogic.
A boy and a man save chairs from a flooded house due to the heavy rains caused by Hurricane Eta, now degraded to a tropical storm, in Puerto Barrios, Izabal 310 km north Guatemala City on November 5, 2020.
Johan Ordonez | AFP | Getty Images
“With one month to go, this hurricane season has been incredibly destructive,” Curtis McDonald, a meteorologist and senior product manager at CoreLogic, said in a statement.
“The important thing right now is to restore power to the millions of homes in the southeastern states, continue damage repairs in previously impacted homes and prepare for what could be record-breaking hurricane activity in November,” McDonald said.
Climate change has triggered frequent and more intense hurricanes as well as more rapidly intensifying storms. The speed of tropical storms making landfall has slowed during the last few decades, causing more rainfall and flooding.
Research also shows that rising temperatures in the Arctic have weakened atmospheric circulation, which has likely affected hurricane speed by causing a slowing of the jet stream.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had initially predicted an abnormally active hurricane season this year, citing warmer ocean temperatures, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds and an enhanced West African monsoon.
Still, forecasters didn’t anticipate just how terrible things would get.
“There is still a month to go in the season, so we have to remain ready,” said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist and spokesperson at the National Hurricane Center.
“But I know I am not alone in stating I’ll be glad when this season is over,” he said.