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Hurricane season begins today; normal June activity expected

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 1:38 PM GMT on June 01, 2009

Hurricane season is upon us, and it's time to take a look at the prevailing conditions and 2-week forecast for tropical cyclone activity in the Atlantic. June is typically the quietest month of the Atlantic hurricane season. On average, we see only one named storm every two years in June. Only one major hurricane has made landfall in June--Category 4 Hurricane Audrey of 1957, which struck the Texas/Louisiana border area on June 27 of that year, killing 550. The highest number of named storms for the month is three, which occurred in 1936 and 1968. In the fourteen years since the current active hurricane period began in 1995, there have been eleven June named storms (if we include last year's Tropical Storm Arthur, which really formed on May 31). Five tropical storms have formed in the first half of June in that 14-year period, giving a historical 36% chance of a first-half-of-June named storm.

Figure 1. Tracks of all June tropical storms and hurricanes, 1851 - 2007.

Sea Surface Temperatures
Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) are close to average over the tropical Atlantic between Africa and Central America this year (Figure 2). These temperatures are some of the coolest we've seen since 1995, when the current active hurricane period began. This year's cool SSTs should prevent a repeat of the unforgettable Hurricane Season of 2005, which had the highest SSTs on record in the tropical Atlantic. Note also that SSTs along the Equatorial Pacific off the coast of South America are quite a bit above average, signaling the possible start of an El Niño episode. As I discussed in Friday's post, odds are increasing for a weak El Niño to form in time for hurricane season, and this should cut down on the number and intensity of Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes this year. However, if an El Niño is developing, it shouldn't start affecting Atlantic hurricane activity until August.

Typically, June storms only form over the Gulf of Mexico, Western Caribbean, and Gulf Stream waters just offshore Florida, where water temperatures are warmest. SSTs are 26 - 28°C in these regions, which is about 0.5°C above average for this time of year. June storms typically form when a cold front moves off the U.S. coast and stalls out, with the old frontal boundary serving as a focal point for development of a tropical disturbance. African tropical waves, which serve as the instigators of about 85% of all major hurricanes, are usually too far south in June to trigger tropical storm formation. Every so often, a tropical wave coming off the coast of Africa moves far enough north to act as a seed for a June tropical storm. This was the case for Arthur of 2008 (which also had major help from the spinning remnants of the Eastern Pacific's Tropical Storm Alma). Another way to get Atlantic June storms is for a disturbed weather area in the Eastern Pacific Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) to push north into the Western Caribbean and spawn a storm there. This was the case for Tropical Storm Alberto of 2006 (which may have also had help from an African wave). SSTs are too cold in June to allow storms to develop between the coast of Africa and the Lesser Antilles Islands--there has only been once such development in the historical record--Ana of 1979, which coincidentally will be the name given to this year's first storm.

Figure 2. Sea Surface Temperature (SST) departure from average for June 1, 2009. SSTs were near average over the tropical Atlantic. Note the large region of above average SSTs along the Equatorial Pacific off the coast of South America, signaling the possible start of an El Niño episode. Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS.

Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential
It's not just the SSTs that are important for hurricanes, it's also the total amount of heat in the ocean to a depth of about 150 meters. Hurricanes stir up water from down deep due to their high winds, so a shallow layer of warm water isn't as beneficial to a hurricane as a deep one. The Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential (TCHP, Figure 3) is a measure of this total heat content. A high TCHP over 80 is very beneficial to rapid intensification. As we can see, the heat energy available in the tropical Atlantic has declined considerably since 2005, when the highest SSTs ever measured in the tropical Atlantic occurred. TCHP this year is similar to last year's levels, which were high enough to support five major hurricanes.

Figure 3. Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential (TCHP) for May 31 2005 (top), May 31 of last year (middle) and May 30 2009 (bottom). TCHP is a measure of the total heat energy available in the ocean. Record high values of TCHP were observed in 2005. TCHP this year is much lower, and similar to last year. Image credit: NOAA/AOML.

Wind shear
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 June over the Atlantic hurricane breeding grounds, since the jet is very active and located quite far south this time of year.

The jet stream over the past few weeks has been locked into a pattern where a southern branch (the subtropical jet stream) brings high wind shear over the Caribbean, and a northern branch (the polar jet stream) brings high wind shear offshore of New England. This leaves a "hole" of low shear between the two branches off the coast of North Carolina, which is where Tropical Depression One formed. The low shear "hole" has dipped down into the northern Gulf of Mexico a few times. Disturbance 90L, which almost developed into a tropical storm before it came ashore in Mississippi/Alabama on May 23, took advantage of one of these low-shear areas.

The jet stream is forecast to maintain this two-branch pattern over the coming ten days. This means that the waters offshore of the Carolinas are the most likely place for a tropical storm to form during this period, though the northern Gulf of Mexico will at times have shear low enough to allow tropical storm formation. The latest 16-day forecast by the GFS model (Figure 4) predicts that the subtropical jet will weaken and retreat northwards by the middle of June, creating low-shear conditions over the Caribbean. This is a typical occurrence for mid-June, and we need to start watching the Western Caribbean for tropical storm formation by the middle of the month.

Figure 4. Wind shear forecast from the 00Z GMT June 1, 2009 run of the GFS model for June 1 (left panel) and June 17 (right panel). Currently, the polar jet stream is bringing high wind shear to the waters offshore New England, and the subtropical jet is bringing high wind shear to the Caribbean. This leaves the waters off the coast of North Carolina under low shear, making this area the most favored region for tropical storm formation over the next 7 - 10 days. By June 17, the subtropical jet is expected to weaken and move northwards, leaving the Caribbean under low shear, and favoring that region for tropical storm formation. Wind speeds are given in m/s; multiply by two to get a rough conversion to knots. Thus, the red regions of low shear range from 0 - 16 knots.

Dry air and African dust
It's too early to concern ourselves with dry air and dust coming off the coast of Africa, since these dust outbreaks don't make it all the way to the June tropical cyclone breeding grounds in the Western Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Developing storms do have to contend with dry air from Canada moving off the U.S. coast; this was a key reason why 2007's Subtropical Storm Andrea never became a tropical storm. Dr. Amato Evan of the University of Wisconsin will issue his dust forecast for the coming hurricane season later this week, and I'll be discussing his forecast in an upcoming post.

Steering currents
The steering current pattern over the past few weeks has been typical for June, with an active jet stream bringing many troughs of low pressure off the East Coast of the U.S. These troughs are frequent enough and 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 typical June pattern, bringing many troughs of low pressure off the East Coast capable of recurving any June storms that might form. There is no telling what might happen during the peak months of August, September, and October--we might be in for a repeat of the favorable 2006 steering current pattern that recurved every storm out to sea--or the unfavorable 2008 pattern, that steered Ike and Gustav into the Gulf of Mexico.

Recent history suggests a 36% chance of a named storm occurring in the first half of June. The current conditions in the atmosphere and ocean are near average, so expect about a 1/3 chance of a named storm between now and June 15. The computer models are currently not forecasting development of any tropical storms over the next seven days.

I'll have an update Tuesday afternoon, when I'll discuss the Colorado State University June Atlantic Hurricane season forecast by Dr. Phil Klotzbach and Dr. Bill Gray, which will be issued Tuesday morning.

My next analysis and 2-week outlook for hurricane season is scheduled for June 13.

Jeff Masters


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