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 , 3:13 PM GMT on May 11, 2006
The La Niña of 2006 proved to be short-lived. Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) in the eastern Pacific near the Equator have returned to near-normal values over the past month, according to the latest El Niño advisory issued today by the Climate Prediction Center (CPC). We are now in what is characterized as ENSO-neutral conditions (or El Niño-neutral conditions), which means that there is neither an El Niño nor a La Niña occurring. This is the case about 45% of the time, and was true for March through December of 2005. The CPC expects El Niño-neutral conditions to continue for at least the next 3-6 months, which means for all of hurricane season. The 2006 La Niña was an unusual one, because it started very late--no La Niña of similar magnitude has ever formed in the middle of winter, as this one did. However, the demise of this year's La Niña came at the usual time such events end--April and May are the typical months for the demise of both La Niña and El Niño.
How will this affect the hurricane season of 2006?
So, what does all this portend for the upcoming hurricane season? It is well-known that the presence of a La Niña usually means more Atlantic hurricanes, and stronger hurricanes, too. This is because the large-scale wind circulation that develops during a La Niña keeps wind shear levels relatively low over the main development region for hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic. So, the demise of La Niña is good news for those of you living in Hurricane Alley. However, before we get too cheerful about this, it is worth remembering that the unbelievable Hurricane Season of 2005 occurred in El Niño-neutral conditions, and El Niño-neutral conditions are expected for this hurricane season, too. So, let's look at some other factors that will influence this year's hurricane season.
Figure 1. Comparison of this year's May SST anomalies with last year's. Image credit: NOAA.
SST comparison--this year vs. last year
Let's compare last year's SST anomalies (the difference in temperature between observed and normal) with this year's, to see how things have changed (Figure 1). The key things to look at are the SSTs in the Caribbean and the tropical Atlantic between Africa and the Antilles Islands, since this is where 85% of all major hurricanes form. While SSTs are .5 to 1.5 degrees above normal--which is a lot!--SSTs are a full degree Centigrade cooler this year than last year at this time. This reduction in SSTs should keep this year's hurricane season from producing early major hurricanes, like Dennis and Emily of July 2005. However, once we enter the prime hurricane months of August through October, expect another above normal year for hurricanes and intense hurricanes. My worst-case scenario for 2006 is a year similar to 2004, which was awful, but modest compared to 2005. My best-case scenario is a year like 1995, which was still very active, but the Bermuda High set up much farther east and recurved most storms before they hit land. Of course, this would be bad for the northeastern Leeward Islands, which got pounded in 1995.
The Gulf of Mexico SSTs are much warmer this year than last, due in part to the record warm temperatures the U.S. experienced in January and April. This may allow for more intense that normal June systems to develop in the Gulf this year. However, remember that systems that develop in the Gulf usually only last a day or two, which doesn't give them much time to strengthen before they hit land. There has only ever been one major hurricane in June (Audrey of 1957).
The other item of interest is that the pattern of SSTs over the eastern Pacific is much different this year versus last year. Waters near the Equator were much warmer last year, thanks to the lingering effect of the El Niño event early in the year. There is also a much warmer pool of water north of Hawaii this year. These differences may end up having a significant influence on this year's jet stream pattern, and where the Bermuda high ultimately sets up camp. The jet stream and Bermuda high determine how hurricanes are steered, but unfortunately we don't know enough about long-range influences of unusual SST patterns on the weather to be able to predict where this year's hurricanes are likely to be steered. The bottom line is that SSTs are cooler and have a much different pattern this year compared to last year, and thus we should not expect a continuation of last year's ridiculously hyperactive, once-in-a-lifetime hurricane season.
Outlook for the rest of May
SSTs are already warm enough to support hurricane formation in the Gulf of Mexico, and the entire tropical Atlantic. What is saving us are the strong upper level winds of the jet stream, which has been dipping far to the south and creating lots of wind shear. The jet stream is forecast to remain active and fairly far south for at least the next two weeks, which should maintain unfavorable levels of wind shear over the Atlantic for the remainder of May. As long as we're talking about tornado outbreaks in the southern U.S., such as we've experienced this week, we don't have to worry about hurricane formation in the Gulf of Mexico. Tornado outbreaks require a stong jet stream, which is the bane of a hurricane trying to form.
The other missing ingredient--at least in the Caribbean and tropical Atlantic--has been the lack of an initial disturbance to get a hurricane started. Africa has just begun to produce its usual summer parade of tropical waves, which frequently serve as the nucleus for a tropical storm. These tropical waves are coming off of Africa at about 2 degrees North Latitude, which is too close to the Equator to allow a hurricane to spin up. I'm not expecting any tropical development for the rest of May in the Atlantic due to high wind shear and the lack of proper initial disturbances.
It's another story in the Eastern Pacific, where wind shear is less and the remains of an old cold front coming off of North America could serve to trigger tropical storm formation as early as next week. The hurricane specialists at the National Hurricane Center begin rotating shift work on Monday May 15, which marks the official beginning of the Eastern Pacific hurricane season.
My next blog will be on Monday. I'll talk about air pollution some next week, since May marks the beginning of air pollution season, and next week is EPA's Air Pollution Awareness Week.
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