Hunting Hurricanes: The 2021 Atlantic Season

By Chris Shieff

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Summer is coming in the Northern Hemisphere and so is the next Atlantic hurricane season – and experts in the US think it is going to be a big one.

Cast your minds back to 2020…

While most of the world was at war with Covid-19, the Atlantic experienced its most active hurricane season ever:

  • There were 25 named storms and 13 hurricanes, 6 of which were ‘major’ i.e. Category 3 strength or higher.
  • There were so many storms, scientists ran out of names for them all.
  • The US experienced more landfalls than any season in history.
  • Even more worryingly, the 2020 season was the fifth one in a row with at least one Category 5 hurricane. Those are the ones capable of catastrophic damage.

Here’s an animation of last years season, compliments of NASA:

One thing we know for sure is that ocean temperatures are on the rise which is the fuel for big hurricanes. And 2021 is stacking up to be no different.

A little background. Here’s what you need to make a hurricane…

There are three main ingredients:

  • Warm water, ideally more than 80 degrees.
  • Moist air. A nice thick layer above the sea’s surface.
  • Light winds. So that that things have a chance to grow.

Combine them all and you form a tropical low. The warm humid air begins to rise and a storm is born. Throw in a dash of Coriolis effect and watch it begin to spin. Lastly keep it fed with an abundance of warm moisture and before long you’ll have a hurricane on your hands

How do we measure them?

By how strong the wind is. If we know that we can estimate how damaging they will be when they hit land.

Enter the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. It’s a 1 to 5 rating based on a hurricane’s maximum sustained windspeed and you’ll hear it mentioned a lot.

The higher the number, the bigger the storm. But make no mistake, to even make it onto the scale in the first place winds are already dangerous. Take a look at this animation from The National Hurricane Center:

It’s also worth mentioning that the scale doesn’t take into account other potentially dangerous hazards such as storm surge, flooding and tornadoes.

So back to the upcoming season. Here’s what the experts have to say about it…

The water this year is warm. Tropical Atlantic sea surface temperatures are about on par with the average but further north sub-tropical temps are much warmer than usual. The problem with this is that it weakens the sub-tropical high and therefore the wind blowing across the tropical Atlantic.

It’s a vicious cycle and the winds are going to be light.

To make matters worse, there will be a lack of La Niña conditions this year which is the real red flag. When La Niña is in full effect, the upper level westerlies are strong and they can tear tropical storms apart before they have a chance to strengthen and grow. This year we won’t have its help.

Ocean temperatures are very warm this year, especially in the sub-tropical latitudes.

So just how bad is it going to get?

Researchers at Colorado State University have done the math and think they know.

They expect up to seventeen named storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from the June until November. Eight of these are expected to become hurricanes, while four will be major ones (Category 3 or higher).

In a nutshell the 2021 season will be almost 150% more active than average. There is almost a 70% chance that a major hurricane will make landfall in the US, and almost 60% chance in the Caribbean. Hold onto your hats.

What can we do about it?

Prepare to help. After a disaster, we know that knowledge is critical. Getting good information to relief workers literally saves lives – which is why OPSGROUP established Relief Air Wing. It is a team of OPSGROUP volunteers who come together in the aftermath of these storms to help share information to relief agencies so that help can get through to where it is needed the most.

Our community contains thousands of skilled pilots, air traffic controllers, dispatchers and other professionals and together we can make a real difference. Head on over to the Relief Air Wing website for more info on our mission and how you can help. Keep an eye on the FAA OIS website. When new storms form, daily telcons are activated that anyone can dial into. They provide up-to-the-minute operational updates on airports and airspace.

Other places to look

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More on the topic:

More reading:

Chris Shieff

Chris Shieff

OPSGROUP team member and A320 pilot. Based in sunny Auckland, New Zealand. Question for us? Write to blog.team@ops.group.

One Comment

  • Flyerman says:

    An interesting Hurricane forecast. It will be a good year to see the effects of the lack of the typical Jetstreams over North America which have occurred over the past couple of years. Predictions are always fun to follow. Mother Nature will do what she does and we will have to live with the results…

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