As if current events aren't taking up enough mental real estate right now, June 1 marks the official start of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season—which means it's time to start thinking about hurricane preparedness.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a "busy" season, with 13-19 named storms. Weather expert Bob Bunting—the chief executive officer of Sarasota's Climate Adaptation Center and a former NOAA scientist and meteorologist—echoes those predictions.
"I'm in the camp of 20 or more named storms this season," he says. "I also believe that we could have three to six Category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes. In fact, the upper end of that prediction looks right to me.
"That doesn't mean that Sarasota will get anything," he continues. "It just means there's going to be a greater number than average of very strong hurricanes, and there's a high probability that one or more of those will strike land. It's looking like a very rough year for hurricanes."
What causes an active hurricane season? Bunting says it's a combination of factors. The first is sea surface temperature. During storm formation, energy from the water gets sucked up into the atmosphere and cooled and then is released back into the storm system as kinetic energy. When ocean temperatures hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit, Bunting says, you start to see a lot of energy being released. That helps aid storm formation, and sea surface temperatures are reaching record highs. In fact, today the water is 85.5 degrees in the Sarasota-Manatee region.
"I expect the Gulf to get to the high 80s in a few months," Bunting says, "and that's like pouring gasoline on a fire when it comes to hurricanes."
The second factor coming into play this year is a La Niña climate pattern. "I think we'll have a La Niña in the Pacific by mid-summer, which will decrease wind sheer," Bunting says. "Hurricanes like that. You start to get the opportunity for the formation of perfect storms." As wind sheer decreases and ocean temperatures increase throughout the summer, the chance of stronger storms in late August, September and October may grow.
But while the later months tend to yield the biggest storms, Bunting says there's a chance a storm could form in the Gulf of Mexico in the next 10 days. "Weather conditions are coming together for that," he says. "It doesn't look like it will be a serious hurricane, and it's hard to say where it's going to go, because nothing's out there right now, but it could be a Category 1 or 2."
If that potential storm forms before Friday, June 5, it would be the first time since hurricane record-keeping began in the 1850s that three named storms formed this early in the season.
So what can we do to keep safe this season—especially as we continue to deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic? In a word: prepare.
"We have the science: The water in all the oceans around the world is warming up, and, as that happens, it provides fuel for these storms," Bunting says. "I don’t see that changing. We're going to be living in a climate-warmed world where the average intensity of a hurricane is going to increase. We've seen a lot of Category 5s over the last few years. As we're learning with COVID-19, the more we focus on credible science, the closer we get to solving the problem."
That's why, he says, Floridians have to heed warnings. "A small change in a hurricane's path can hugely affect its outcome," Bunting says. "Hurricane Michael went from a category 2 to a category 5 in one day, and not everyone could get out. If that happened here, where would you go? Where would you shelter? If we're not going to use evacuation centers because of COVID-19, what are we going to do? You don't want to be making your plans during a crisis. Think about it now and be ready to act. It only takes one storm."