Texas Tech University

Mailbag: What's Up With Hurricane Season?

Allen Ramsey

September 1, 2023

Hurricane season is clearly here, so we asked why they’re hitting left, right and center.

Welcome back to the Mailbag!

We're in the season of seasons now. Fall is that time of year. 

It's football season (Let's GO!), college soccer and volleyball season, Halloween season (at least at my house), and back-to-school season.

That's a lot of seasons. 

It's also tropical storm and hurricane season, and it's become clear we're right in the middle of that. 

Over the last few weeks, the U.S. has been hit with storms in California, Texas and Florida, and there seem to be a few more just waiting in line to see where they want to land. 

Hurricane Idalia is the latest, but the patterns of the storms struck a few of us as slightly odd and we thought now would be a good time to dive into it a bit. 

So, as we do, we contacted one of our experts to get the skinny.  

We reached out to Brian Hirth, a faculty researcher with Texas Tech University's National Wind Institute. His background is in meteorology and atmospheric sciences, and he has deployed instruments into 20 landfalling tropical systems to date. He and his team would normally have traveled with their equipment to monitor and study a storm like Idalia. 

This time they were still in Lubbock, so we got lucky being able to reach him. The topography where the hurricane made landfall – marshy, heavily wooded and prone to surging sea water – made it unreasonable for them to take their instruments down to the Big Bend of Florida. 

Hirth confirmed that there is a little bit of an oddity happening this storm season. 

We'll start with El Niño and its impact. 

Our office has written about El Niño and its early arrival already this year, so if you need a better understanding of exactly what it is, check out this excellent article. But for today's purposes, what Hirth explained is that El Niño, and its counter La Niña, are dominated by the temperature of the water in the central Pacific Ocean. 

“We are solidly within an El Niño pattern this hurricane season,” he explained. “In an El Niño, the waters of the eastern Pacific near the equator are warmer than average.”

Those warm waters typically impact global wind patterns which tend to bring about the conditions that support tropical systems in the eastern Pacific, such as Hurricane Hillary which impacted the U.S. West Coast. 

So that explains part of what we've seen so far, but this is where it gets really interesting. 

“Within the Atlantic basin, the source for hurricanes that impact the Gulf and East Coasts, El Niño years are usually less active,” Hirth said. 

Those changing wind patterns impact the storm systems in the Atlantic and generally make it less conducive for tropical storm systems to develop and remain intense. 

But this year, another factor has come into play. 

“What we're seeing this year is that water temperatures are at near record highs,” Hirth said, “so they may be offsetting the normal wind patterns of El Niño with much warmer ocean water, which is the fuel for hurricanes.”

As Hirth explained it, hurricane season starts June 1 and runs through the end of November. The normal peak in hurricane activity is from mid-August through mid-October and, as if on cue, the storms in the Atlantic have started popping up over the last couple of weeks. 

While Hirth said the surging water levels in Florida's Coastal Bend – where Idalia made landfall – weren't unusual for a storm that size, he did point out that the activity level of the storms is on pace to surpass an average year despite El Niño conditions. 

“In the average Atlantic hurricane season, we have about 14 named storms, seven become hurricanes and three become major hurricanes,” Hirth said. “This year we're at nine, three and two in those categories, so more than halfway to those averages about a third of the way through the season.”

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