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The Active 2020 Hurricane Season

Hold on, kids! Here comes another storm season
The 2020 hurricane season was an especially active one 

The 2020 hurricane season was an especially active one 

There is an ocean-sailing science fiction novel I’ve been writing in my head now for some time. It posits a future in which the world’s climate has become so unsettled the sport of ocean sailing has been transformed. Sailing in the Vendée Globe has become so dangerous, due to all the furious weather roaming the planet, most competitors race robot boats from behind computer screens safe onshore. The action of the story revolves around the last two sailors crazy enough to sail the race themselves, who are, of course, bitter rivals. The denouement comes when they are shipwrecked together on a remote island in the southern Indian Ocean, where they are confronted by a horde of seemingly sapient penguins, who are in fact “transcended” tourists from an alien planet.

It says something about how the future is unfolding that this scenario now seems increasingly likely.

Take last year’s hurricane season. It was phenomenally dynamic and shattered all sorts of norms. It broke the record for the most named storms in a single season (30), the most named storms to make landfall in the United States (12), the most storms to form in a single month (10 in September), and the most late-season major hurricanes (four in October and November). It also tied many other records, including one for the most storms to rapidly intensify (nine).

The 2020 season was so insanely active every single mile of the U.S. southern and eastern shoreline, from the Mexican border in Texas to the Canadian border in Maine, was at some point under a storm watch or warning. All but five coastal counties ultimately did experience tropical storm-force winds.

To my mind, the craziest thing about 2020 is where and when storms formed. Two storms, Dolly and Kyle, formed off the U.S. East Coast north of Cape Hatteras. Another storm, Alpha, formed about halfway between the Azores and Ireland and ultimately made landfall in Portugal. The first storm of the season arrived on May 16; the last, Iota, the latest Category 5 storm on record, didn’t unravel until November 18. Three of the late-season Greek alphabet storms—Delta, Eta and Iota—strengthened into major Category 4 or 5 hurricanes with frightening speed, with wind speeds that increased by over 100 mph in just 36 hours.

I don’t know about you, but none of this seems normal to me. If I were a marine insurance actuary trying to figure out how to hedge against the risks of ocean-sailing yachts being damaged or destroyed by tropical storms and hurricanes, I might be tempted to just throw up my hands and make the whole North Atlantic off-limits from May to November. The awful fact is, just as climate scientists have predicted, storms everywhere, not just the tropical ones, are getting ever more frequent, more turbulent, are developing faster than ever, and are more widespread.

As for this year’s hurricane season—which technically starts this month, but which by now may already be well underway—the prognosticators have been issuing extended-range forecasts since as far back as December. As of this writing, the good news is that though this year’s season is expected to be slightly more active than average, it should be much less active than last year, with “only” 16 named storms and seven hurricanes, three of which will be major ones. The bad news is the trend of strong rapidly developing storms seems destined to continue. The landfall hotspots in the United States this year are predicted to be the entire Gulf Coast from Houston around to Miami, plus the coast of North Carolina.

One other thing that will be different this year is the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) won’t be using the Greek alphabet to name storms when it runs out of normal letters. Last year it got so deep into the Greek letters people just got confused. So now, if need be, the WMO will just reset to the letter A and start a new list of names.

Does all this scary storm news mean we should all just stop sailing? Of course not! I’m sure that you, like me, have no intention of becoming one of those robot sailor geeks. Personally, I’m looking forward to doing battle with storms and alien tourists masquerading as penguins—whether I have insurance or not. 

June 2021

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