Is the 2017 hurricane season worse than usual?

hurricanes
© Tropical Storm Katia, left, Hurricane Irma, center, Tropical Storm Jose, right, Sept. 8, 2017. (NASA/NOAA GOES Project)

Short answer: Yes. When compared to past Atlantic hurricane seasons, this year is shaping up to be a doozy.

Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane near Rockport, Texas on August 25. Then came Irma, Jose and Maria … all Category 3 or higher, and all within a month.

Cue a chorus of: What’s going on???

Is this Atlantic hurricane season more intense than normal? Viewing it from the midst of it, it certainly seems so. But it would be unscientific to go on hunches alone – and the perception of something as it's unfolding always seems more dramatic than the memory of similar situations. Which is why it's helpful that The New York Times kindly crunched the numbers and here’s what they discovered. It’s not your imagination, writes Maggie Astor, “The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been unusually active.”

“This season has been an overachiever by almost every index,” Bob Henson, a meteorologist for Weather Underground, tells Astor. “We’ve had more than a year’s worth of named storms when you look at the long-term average, and that’s being just past the midpoint of the season.”

Here are some of the numbers:

  • There have been 13 named storms this year.
  • If we get another two named storms by the end of 2017, it would put the year in the top 15 since 1851, when reliable records were first made. “I would be shocked if we didn’t get at least two more,” Henson said.
  • Of the 13 named storms so far in 2017, seven have been hurricanes; that has only happened four times since 1995.
  • We’ve had more named storms so far this year than we had for each whole season in 1997, 1999, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2014 and 2015. “We’re running at about twice the pace of a typical season,” Henson said.
  • It may be normal for six storms to develop in a month, but it is “very unusual for two Category 4 and two Category 5 hurricanes to do so.”
  • It is also rare (and wildly tragic) for three major hurricanes (Irma, Jose and Maria) to charge through the same area (the northeastern Caribbean) in such a short amount of time (three weeks). “The last time the northern Leeward Islands experienced two major hurricanes in the same season was 1899,” writes Astor, “and now it is looking at three in the same month.”

While a final summary of the year won’t be realized until the end of the season on November 30, some things seem certain:

  • It will be the most financially destructive season on record in the U.S. The expenses for 2005 rang in at $143.5 billion in damages thanks to Katrina and three other major hurricanes that year. Estimates for this year are putting damage from Harvey and Irma at around $290 billion. Two storms alone, twice as expensive as four in 2005.
  • In terms of activity, it will be hard to beat 2005, a year that hit the record books with 28 named storms, but it could be close.

Henson says he would not be surprised if 2017 were the second year (after 2005) to exhaust the alphabet for names, which would mean at least 21 named storms, since hurricane names do not begin with Q, U, X, Y or Z. In 2005, after Wilma they moved on to Greek letters; Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta.

But even if 2017 doesn’t beat that record, it’s already one for the books. “The intensity of the activity this year will put it in the pantheon of our most active years regardless of what happens from here outward,” Henson says.

Tags: Natural Disasters | Weather

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