Do you call this a hurricane season…?

The historical record shows the September 1 – 10 period to be the most active in terms of annual cyclogenesis in the Atlantic basin, followed closely by the 10-day periods of August 21-31 and September 11-20. This 30-day period, from August 21 through September 20 is the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, at least statistically in terms of the number of tropical cyclones that originate within this time frame. Records maintained by NOAA show that of a total of 1370 tropical storms and hurricanes generating in the Atlantic from 1851 through 2006 fully 482 or 35.2% actually originated during the 30-day period from August 21 through September 20.

So, what is happening with the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season? With just about 60% of the 2011 season completed on this 16th of September there are some interesting facts to note. There have already been fifteen tropical depressions in the Atlantic in 2011, and of these fourteen became tropical cyclones; this is quite a high percentage of cyclogenesis. On the other hand only three of the fourteen named storms so far have reached hurricane strength, this is less than 22% a much lower rate than had been anticipated based on historical records and early predictions out of NOAA and Colorado. Also of interest is that 8 of the 15 tropical depressions and 7 of the 14 named storms were generated during the month of August. The ten-day period of 1-10 September only saw three tropical cyclones generated.

GOES EAST Satellite view showing large regions of dryer air over the Gulf, Caribbean and Atlantic on 16 September 2011

In addition to the above, today on 16 September 2011 as we look around the larger Atlantic basin there are no signs of tropical waves or other areas of disturbed weather that look as if they would warrant closer attention or possible investigation for potential further development. In fact there is so much dry air  in most of the basin, that some of the seeds for rainstorm generation are missing, which in turn weakens the prospects for tropical cyclone formation over the next several days. There are two large areas of disorganized collectives of small and medium sized rain storms, one to the east and northeast of the Lesser Antilles and the other, an elongated one, in ‘hurricane alley’ to the south and southwest of the Cape Verde islands, but conditions do not appear favorable for any significant further development of these areas.

Full Earth's disc composite satellite image of the western hemisphere, on 16 September 2011, showing the 'broken' belt of tropical activity

Looking east toward the eastern Atlantic and equatorial Africa we do not see anything near the Cape Verde islands or over equatorial Africa along the ‘tropical-wave assembly line’ that may generate tropical waves or seeds for tropical cyclone formation at least for now and over the  next couple of days. In fact it is interesting to note than the ‘belt of tropical activity’ is once again “broken” [interrupted] toward the western fringe of ‘hurricane alley’.

There is one region however that has continued to show persistent storminess and some potential for tropical cyclone development. I am referring to the region that includes Central America, the northern portion of South America [Colombia and Venezuela], southern Mexico, and adjacent waters in the Caribbean and eastern east Pacific. In this regard it is interesting to note that historically cyclogenesis during the month of October and early November appears to favor activity in the Caribbean sub-basin, so if current stormy rainy weather conditions were to continue along with the rather warm surface waters in the Caribbean there may be some potential for tropical cyclone formation in that region.

Color-enhanced infrared GOES satellite view of Central America and adjacent regions, on 16 September 2011, showing the persistent area of rain, thunderstorms and otherwise disturbed area that has prevailed over the region for most of the summer of 2011




How do we qualify the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season so far? Do we categorize it as a “flop” because it’s been mostly tropical storms and weak ones at that and only 3 hurricanes so far? Or do we think of the millions of people that went without power, and suffered floods throughout several states along the mid-Atlantic and northeastern USA under the impact of Irene? Certainly in terms of number of named tropical cyclones the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season qualifies as a higher than average season, but in terms of actual cyclonic energy it’s been a mild one, although we have had more than 50 deaths so far in the USA and throughout the Caribbean. Also, while the Atlantic season appears to be in a ‘lull’ for now, there is plenty of time left as the Sun above progresses southward as the Earth’s axis tilts toward the north and the tropics continue to be primed for potential tropical cyclone activity. I guess we will have to wait and see until after the end of the season to review what took place, and then decide what kind of a season it has been.

In my view, what is clear is that all of the statistical games we play in trying to compare the current season to what has been designated as an “average season”, if there is such a thing, based on the historical record, really mean nothing until there is a land-falling hurricane or tropical storm that hits one or more urban communities in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico or the USA, and then the structural damage, death, injuries and always shocking human suffering, really bring the whole season into focus, and we all realize it only takes one impact to make it “a season” for the historical records!

Relative to the impact of hurricanes, and tropical storms, we must continue to search for a better  method of communicating to residents of vulnerable coastal communities what the “potential impact” of an approaching tropical cyclone really means, moving away from focusing on a number on a scale that means different things to different people. We had interesting discussions on this topic at the Colorado Hazards Conference two years ago, and there have been some notable papers and presentations on this including one by current NHC Director Bill Read, but  there is no “new hurricane impact index” yet. Consequently as each hurricane season progresses, potential impacts continue to be colored by the experience or lack thereof of each resident in a vulnerable coastal community, or by the opinions and at times mystifying pronouncements of electronic of printed media reporters or meteorologists; as a result many continue to be “surprised” by what they actually experience during the impact of a hurricane regardless of its category, and by what they see in terms of damage and suffering in the aftermath of such an event.

The challenge to find a more effective way of communicating potential damage from hurricane impact is out there, in front of all of us that work in hurricane research, forecasting, predicting, vulnerability and mitigation, or that study hurricanes from the perspective of their human or social impacts or that of the structural and physical damage they can cause.  Relative to this I’d like to issue a challenge of my own, to all those bloggers or members of discussion groups in various social media outlets, please make this issue of defining and designing a better method to convey hurricane impact one of your priorities!

Two Days Later

It now Sunday 18 September 2011 and  it would appear mother Nature took issue with my statement that “we do not see…..anything that may generate tropical waves or seeds for tropical cyclone formation at least for now [16 September] or over the next couple of days”, for as we look toward hurricane alley and the eastern Atlantic there is some activity out there that may warrant closer attention.

Mosaic of satellite images on 18 September 2011 showing a swath of Earth's northern tropics from the eastern Pacific to the Indian Ocean, and at least three cells of tropical weather that appear to be gearing up for some further development

In the satellite image above notice three areas of disturbed weather, identified by heavy yellow dashed outlines and the numerals 1, 2 and 3, which have flared-up in the past few hours and may warrant closer attention and possibly investigation by our colleagues at the National Hurricane Center. Keep looking east and watch for updated postings here in !


U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE – NOAA: Tropical Cyclones of the North Atlantic Ocean 1851-2006; Historical Climatology Series 6-2. Sixth Revision – July 2009: BLAKE, Eric S., DAVID, Joan E., LANDSEA, Christopher W., MCADIE, Colin J., and NEUMANN, Charles, of the National Hurricane Center; HAMMER, Gregory R., of the National Climatic Data Center.

NOAA – National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service.

UNIVERSITY OF WIESCONSIN-MADISON – Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies [CIMSS], Space Science and Engineering Center. ;

NASA – Global Hydrology and Climate Center, Earth Science Office: Interactive Global Geostationary Weather Satellite Images.

ELSNER, James B., KARA, A. Birol  [1999] Hurricanes of the North Atlantic – Climate and Society. Oxford University Press, New York, USA, Oxford, UK

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