Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:02 PM GMT on July 31, 2009
The Atlantic remains quiet today, with no threat areas to discuss and no models calling for tropical storm formation over the seven days. Not much has changed in the Atlantic since my mid-July Atlantic hurricane outlook posted two weeks ago. However, we are now at the cusp of when hurricane activity begins a steep rise (Figure 1). Early August is typically when wind shear begins a major decline, sea surface temperatures continue to rise, African dust and dry air outbreaks diminish, and the African Monsoon and Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) become quite active, spawning frequent and powerful tropical waves. These tropical waves serve as the instigators of about 85% of all major hurricanes.
Since the current active hurricane period began in 1995, ten out of fourteen years (71%) have had a named storm form during the first half of August, with an average of 1.4 named storms per year. The last nine years in a row have had a named storm form during the first half of August, but the previous four year stretch (1996 - 1999), did not have any storms form.
Figure 1. The seasonal distribution of Atlantic hurricane activity shows a steep rise at the beginning of August. Image credit: NHC.
Sea Surface Temperatures
Eighty-five percent of all major hurricanes form in the Main Development Region (MDR) of the Atlantic, from the coast of Africa to the coast of Central America, between 10° and 20° latitude. This region also spawns 60% of all weaker hurricanes and tropical storms. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) anomalies in the MDR have slowly but steadily risen during July, and now stand at a respectable 0.5°C (0.9°F) above average (Figure 2). SSTs are well below the record levels observed in 2005 and 2006, when they were up to 2°C above average over large portions of the Main Development Region. Still, there is plenty of heat energy available for strong hurricanes to form this year. The strength of the Azores-Bermuda high has been below average over the past month, driving below average trade winds. Weaker trade winds don't mix up as much cold water from the depths, and cause less evaporative cooling. The latest 2-week run of the GFS model predicts continued slightly below average-strength trade winds through mid-August, so SST anomalies should continue to warm during this period.
Figure 2. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) departure from average for July 30, 2009. SSTs were about 0.5°C (0.9°F) above average over the tropical Atlantic's Main Development region for hurricanes, from Africa to Central America between 10° and 20° North Latitude. Note the large region of above average SSTs along the Equatorial Pacific off the coast of South America, the hallmark of an El Niño episode. Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS
El Niño conditions have remained steady over the tropical Eastern Pacific over the past month. Ocean temperatures in the area 5°N - 5°S, 120°W - 170°W, also called the "Niño 3.4 region", remain at 0.8°C above average, which is 0.3°C above the threshold for a weak El Niño, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (Figure 3). An increase of another 0.2°C would push the current El Niño into the "moderate" category. NOAA's Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño Advisory earlier this month, and predicts that El Niño conditions will intensify over the next few months, and last through the coming winter. The latest set of mid-July runs of the El Niño computer models are almost universally calling for El Niño conditions to remain well-established for the peak months of hurricane season, August - October. It is likely that Atlantic hurricane activity will be suppressed in 2009 due to the strong upper-level winds and resulting wind shear an El Niño event usually brings to the tropical Atlantic. The NOAA CFS model is calling for continued above-average wind shear over most of the tropical Atlantic for the August-September-October peak part of hurricane season.
Figure 3. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) departure from average for the the equatorial Eastern Pacific (the area 5°N - 5°S, 120°W - 170°W, also called the "Niño 3.4 region"). El Niño conditions exist when the SST in this region rises 0.5°C above average. As of July 31, 2009, SSTs in the Niño 3.4 region had risen to 0.83°C above average. To be considered an "El Niño episode", El Niño conditions must occur for five consecutive months, using 3-month averages. Image credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
Wind shear is usually defined as the difference in wind between 200 mb (roughly 40,000 foot altitude) and 850 mb (roughly 5,000 foot altitude). In most circumstances, wind shear above 20 knots will act to inhibit tropical storm formation. Wind shear below 12 knots is very conducive for tropical storm formation. High wind shear acts to tear a storm apart. The jet stream's band of strong high-altitude winds is the main source of wind shear in July over the Atlantic hurricane breeding grounds, but in August the jet stream retreats to the north, and wind shear typically falls.
Wind shear over the past month (Figure 4) has mostly been above average over the tropical Atlantic, particularly over the Caribbean. The presence of El Niño conditions over the tropical Eastern Pacific may be primarily responsible for this enhanced shear. However, wind shear has been slowly falling over the southern portion of the Caribbean and southern MDR over the past week, and is forecast by the GFS model to fall to near-average levels by mid-August. This should present a more favorable environment for hurricanes to form in by mid-month.
Figure 4. Departure of wind shear from average in m/s for the 1-month period ending July 27, 2009. Higher than average wind shear (blue colors) was observed over the Caribbean. The El Niño conditions over the tropical Eastern Pacific may be primarily responsible for this enhanced shear. Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.
Dry air and African dust
June and July are the peak months for dust coming off the coast of Africa, and the Saharan dust storms have been quite active over the past month. Expect dust from Africa to diminish in the coming month, allowing a greater chance for African tropical waves to develop.
The steering current pattern has remained virtually the same all summer. A persistent trough of low pressure has remained entrenched over the Eastern U.S., bringing cool and relatively moist weather to the northeastern portion of the country. This trough is strong enough to recurve any tropical storms or hurricanes that might penetrate north of the Caribbean Sea. Steering current patterns are predictable only about 3 - 5 days in the future, although we can make very general forecasts about the pattern as much as two weeks in advance. At present, it appears that the coming two weeks will maintain the strong trough over the Eastern U.S., which decreases the hurricane risk to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It is often difficult to break a months-long steering current pattern like the current one, and it's reasonable to forecast that the current steering pattern will continue to dominate into September.
Recent history suggests a 71% chance of a named storm occurring in the first half of August. However, this is not a typical year. The ITCZ has been remarkably inactive, and there have been an unusually low number of tropical waves coming off the coast of Africa. Although SST anomalies should continue to rise and wind shear should slowly fall over the next few weeks, the computer models suggest no significant changes to the current inactive weather pattern. I'll go with a 30% chance of a named storm forming in the first half of August.
I'll have a new post on Monday.
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