The U.S. coast is in an unprecedented hurricane drought
Article was added on Friday, August 05, 2016
The Washington Post
By JASON SAMENOW
Hurricanes, large and small, have eluded U.S. shores for record
lengths of time. As population and wealth along parts of the U.S.
coast have exploded since the last stormy period, experts dread the
potential damage and harm once the drought ends.
Three historically unprecedented droughts in landfalling U.S.
hurricanes are presently active.
A major hurricane hasn't hit the U.S. Gulf or East Coast in more
than a decade. A major hurricane is one containing maximum
sustained winds of at least 111 mph and classified as Category 3 or
higher on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson wind scale. The streak has reached
3,937 days, longer than any previous drought by nearly two
Twenty-seven major hurricanes have occurred in the Atlantic
Ocean basin since the last one, Wilma, struck Florida in 2005. The
odds of this are 1 in 2,300, according to Phil Klotzbach, a
hurricane researcher from Colorado State University.
Florida hasn't seen a hurricane of any intensity since 2005's
Wilma, which is shocking considering it averages about seven
hurricane landfalls per decade. The current drought in the Sunshine
State, nearing 11 years, is almost twice as long as the previous
longest drought of six years (from 1979-1985).
Sixty-seven hurricanes have tracked through the Atlantic since
Florida's last hurricane impact. The odds of this are about 1 in
550, Klotzbach said.
Even the entire Gulf of Mexico, and its sprawling coast from
Florida to Texas, have been hurricane-free for almost three full
years, the longest period since record-keeping began 165 years ago
(in 1851). The last hurricane to traverse the Gulf waters was
Ingrid, which made landfall in Mexico as a tropical storm, in
Scientists have no solid explanation for the lack of hurricane
landfalls. The number of storms forming in the Atlantic over the
past decade or so has been close to normal, but many have remained
over the ocean or hit other countries rather than the United
A study published by the American Geophysical Union in 2015 said
the lack of major hurricane landfalls boiled down to dumb luck
rather than a particular weather pattern. "I don't believe there is
a major regime shift that's protecting the U.S.," said study lead
author Timothy Hall from NASA.
A "recurring" area of low pressure near the U.S. East Coast in
recent years may have repelled some storms, argue Klotzbach and
Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.
But McNoldy still says "luck is really 99 percent of it [the
Adam Sobel, a climate scientist at Columbia University, cautions
that the drought in no way invalidates global warming predictions
or the expectation that storms will grow more intense in future
decades. The "notion that the hurricane drought in the Atlantic has
somehow disproved the consensus projections of climate science is
wrong, because the drought is still a relatively short-term
fluctuation in a single basin, while the projections are for
long-term global trends," he writes on his blog.
And as impressively long as the various droughts are, McNoldy
said there have been numerous storms that have almost ended each of
them in recent years.
So the drought is hanging on by a thread. A single major
hurricane striking Florida's Gulf Coast, McNoldy said, would break
all three standing droughts simultaneously.
Concerns about preparedness and increasing coastal
It's only a matter of time before the luck reverses and storms
start bombarding the U.S. coast again.
Growing coastal populations and lack of recent hurricane
activity, from Florida to Texas, raise concerns about the nation's
"Hurricanes are going to hit the U.S. again and people are going
to be shocked by the magnitude of the disaster," said Roger Pielke
Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of
Colorado at Boulder.
The Associated Press reports Florida's coastal communities have
added 1.5 million people and almost a half-million new homes since
2005, the last time there was an onslaught of storms.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that
by 2020, the U.S. coastal population will have reached 134 million
people, 11 million more than in 2010.
"Hurricane damage and destruction is a direct function of how
much accumulated wealth there is," Pielke said. "We've put a lot of
stuff along the coast. If we're in this 10-year drought, loss
potentials in some places may now be two times higher than it was a
Experts are conflicted as to whether residents - after a long
break from dealing with hurricanes - will be well-prepared when the
next storm threatens.
Kim Klockow, a visiting scientist at the National Weather
Service who studies meteorology and social behavior, said one major
concern "is that communities might not be as practiced in getting
prepared simply because they haven't had to do it in a while."
But she said she doesn't think residents will tune the storm
threat out. "I'm not sure if the long period of calm will make them
less concerned," Klockow added.
Gina Eosco, a social scientist who works with National Weather
Service through the consulting firm Eastern Research Group, agrees
with Klockow. "Coastal residents are savvy," she said. "They
understand that by living on the coast they are taking some risk.
An individual does not necessarily need direct experience to decide
to evacuate or prepare for a hurricane."
Still, Pielke said consequences are inevitable for
out-of-practice communities. "You can do all the talking and
planning you want, but until you go through a hurricane, you don't
know what you're up against," he said. "The lessons of inexperience
are pretty costly."
Eosco offered this advice: "I cannot overstate the importance of
preparing before a storm happens. This starts with a conversation.
Each resident with experience should share it with their new
Brian McNoldy and Phil Klotzbach contributed to this
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