With apologies for the delay in producing this summary, we can now reflect on the 2021 Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico storm season. Strong frontal activity and rapidly cooling sea surface water temperatures finally battened down the hatches on the season over a month ago. Despite the late arrival of the year’s La Niña throwing some convection cycles across the rail from the eastern Pacific, these proved no match for the wide sweep of upper level shear which fanned over the Gulf of Mexico. Any flurries in the Atlantic were quickly absorbed into the muck and filth of a typical gloomy, awful North Atlantic winter.
I always maintain a sailor’s natural aversion to standing down prematurely, but once the last of the reliable commentators had packed their grips and headed down the gangway, I felt reasonably safe ringing down Finished With Engines in late November and can now reflect on what was another extraordinary season-long voyage in another extraordinary year.
Increasing uncertainty based on freak weather becoming less freak and more mainstream had the modellers all over the place for the 2021 forecast. I always like to look at the much-respected Colorado State University pre-season for sound reasoning. They had predicted 17 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes having expressed a slight increase in Pacific water temperature later in the season, a passion killer for lusty storms towards the autumn. I suspected that was rather tenuous and disregarded it. This proved to be a decent guess as sea water surface heating came too late to make any difference.
Working on one guess being as good as any other, my reluctant prediction was for 20 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes. The final tally was 21 named storms, 7 hurricanes of which 4 were major hurricanes, so mine was a slight overestimation on severity.
This was another busy season, albeit quieter than 2020. The worst of the muck and filth remained offshore with the exception of IDA, of course, and without wishing to tempt providence, the offshore oil leases in Gulf of Mexico dodged another season-long bullet. This was a season of short-lived storms with 10 of the 21 named storms lasting less than 48 hours, and all relatively weak. This is becoming a year on year trend but may simply be a feature of more sophisticated detection and monitoring.
Questions are being asked again why the numbers are so high. The theories are numerous. I’ll throw my personal view in for what it’s worth. Good lusty convection across the convergence zone fuelled by above average sea surface water temperatures is a good place to start. Sceptics look away now. Global warming cannot be dismissed. (I should add here that any opinions expressed in this summary are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Munich Re Syndicate, but I think you’d need a sound argument to disagree.)
The financial cost of season will be widely reported and I use this annual summary for a moment’s reflection on human cost at the close of the season. We are again reminded of own human frailty in the face of natural catastrophe.
2021 The Butcher’s Bill.
Continuing our modest claim to be first in and last out every season, we picked up a swirl of rising air to the east of Bermuda on May 21st which the sharp-eyed professional agencies were on to just 24 hours later and by the following day, ANA had formed. This was always going to be a runt of a storm and was done and dusted within a couple of days without bothering anyone in Bermuda and only caused a couple of uncomfortable days at sea with maximum wind speeds of just 60 knots. ANA set a new record with the seventh consecutive season with a tropical or subtropical cyclone before the official June 1st start date.
What is becoming a new normal for the Atlantic season produced a lean spell until a low pressure cell formed in the tail of an eastbound front off the coast of South Carolina which deepened and formed tropical storm BILL on June 15th. BILL ran parallel to the eastern seaboard without developing significantly, producing winds of little more than 60 knots. A north-easterly track soon took the storm over cooler water before fading into a trough of low pressure as it approached south-eastern Newfoundland.
We spotted a potential rainmaker on June 8th which initially loafed about in the far western Caribbean for a few days. This caused heavy rainfall in Southern Mexico and Central America before meandering again in the Bay of Campeche. Inevitably, our charmed existence was to come to an end as the system started moving north, developing a very pronounced circulation cycle. By June 17th, this was being widely reported as the next named storm. This became CLAUDETTE just before landfall in south-eastern Louisiana on June 19th producing biblical quantities of rain, strong winds and localised tornadoes as it crossed areas of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and parts of Florida. On June 21st CLAUDETTE reached the Atlantic and regained tropical storm intensity as it moved away from the coast of North Carolina, weakening into a trough of low pressure on June 22nd. CLAUDETTE had a significant impact during its run ashore causing 14 deaths in Alabama.
Hot on the heels of CLAUDETTE, another low pressure cell developed in the wake of an eastbound front. On June 22nd , an upper-level trough was picked up to the south-east of Bermuda. Flying in the face of normal tracks, this headed west to north-west passing well south of Bermuda to make a landfall on 28th June just north of Hilton Head on Pritchard’s Island, South Carolina as tropical storm DANNY. This was a very weak storm but did cause some minor flooding as far inland as central Georgia before dissipating.
We picked up a new disturbance as it left the African coast which the National Hurricane Centre was onto as quick as a flash two days later. This headed east and formed Tropical Storm ELSA on July 1st and deepened into a category one hurricane the following day. This brought strong winds and heavy rain as it passed the Windward Islands causing extensive damage, then wobbled and slowed down before regenerating as it passed north of Jamaica late on July 5th before making a landfall over west-central Cuba. On July 6th, ELSA emerged into the Gulf of Mexico and began to re-strengthen into a category one hurricane as it paralleled the west coast of Florida, briefly becoming a minimal hurricane again as it passed west of Tampa. ELSA then weakened back to a tropical storm, before making landfall late on July 7th in Taylor County, Florida. The storm weakened after landfall, but remained at minimal tropical storm strength as part of its circulation remained over water, becoming a post-tropical cyclone on July 9th over eastern Massachusetts. In total, ELSA is believed to have caused the death of 13 souls across the Caribbean, Cuba and the United States.
A melee of tropical waves combined to spin off FRED which formed in the north-eastern Caribbean just south of Puerto Rico on July 11th before making a landfall near San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic. This lost power as it crossed Hispaniola before reappearing off the north coast of Haiti, strengthening slightly before landfall two over Cayo Romano, Cuba on 12th. After crossing the island, FRED regenerated into a tropical storm over the eastern Gulf of Mexico and turned to the north to make a third, fairly weak landfall near Cape San Blas, Florida. FRED was a rainmaker for Cuba and Florida – and as it made its way ashore, spun off numerous tornadoes from Georgia to Massachusetts causing extensive damage and nine deaths.
We picked up GRACE when it emerged off the African coast on August 8th as a disturbance. By August 13th, this had attracted much interest from the professional agencies and formed a tropical storm the following day. GRACE weakened to a tropical depression on August 15 just before landfall over Hispaniola just two days after the devastating Haiti earthquake. The storm’s intensity continued to increase, and on August 18th, was upgraded to a category one hurricane. Continuing west, the storm made landfall on the Yucatan peninsula near Tulum and weakened into a tropical storm again. Moving into the south-western Gulf of Mexico on August 20th, the storm began to re-strengthen, again becoming a category one hurricane and rapidly intensified to a category three hurricane just fifteen hours later – our the first major hurricane of the season. After peaking with winds of 110 knots, the system made a third landfall in Mexico near Tecolutla, Veracruz, then rapidly weakened over the mountains of central Mexico and dissipated, but not before causing an estimated 15 deaths, mainly due to flash flooding.
HENRI piped up some 200 miles north-nor’east of Bermuda on August 16th. For the next three days, Henri remained as a strong tropical storm whilst curving northwards as it rounded the western edge of the Azores High. After a few days lounging about in the western Atlantic, HENRI reached category one hurricane intensity then headed north-west, weakening as it did so and made a landfall August 22nd near Westerly, Rhode Island as a weak tropical storm, degenerating rapidly as it moved inland.
On August 19th, we picked up a promising disturbance as it left the African coast and followed the well-worn path to the west. As this entered the eastern Caribbean on August 26th, it deepened quickly and was designated tropical storm IDA. This made a westerly track to approach central America but was steered north by upper level winds which fuelled development and allowed a landfall as a category one hurricane on the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba and bounced along the coast making a second strike at Pinar del Río, Cuba late on August 27th. After crossing Cuba and entering the Gulf of Mexico, IDA fired up and gradually intensified through category two to a category three hurricane on August 29th. Then IDA turned nasty and intensified rapidly as it made for the Louisiana coast, stalling briefly to allow further intensification before landfall over Port Fourchon, Louisiana, with sustained winds of 130 knots and observed 150 knot gusts. After landfall, IDA weakened uncharacteristically slowly remaining a dangerous major hurricane for two days ashore only dropping below hurricane strength early on August 30th before weakening to a depression later that day. The system degenerated to a post-tropical cyclone two days later, as it moved over the Appalachian Mountains The extratropical low then continued north-east into Atlantic Canada and stalled over the Gulf of St. Lawrence before being absorbed by an eastbound low on September 4th. This was a horrid cyclone. Rain had triggered damaging floods and landslides as far south as Venezuela, causing at least 20 deaths. The storm caused widespread significant damage throughout coastal Louisiana with parts of New Orleans left without power for several weeks and a trail of destruction along its path from Louisiana as far north as New York City where widespread catastrophic flooding shut down most of the City’s transportation system. In all, IDA is believed to have caused over 120 deaths.
We picked up a disturbance slipping the African coast on August 20th. This took an early turn into the central Atlantic and formed tropical fish-storm JULIAN, crossing the pond diagonally and uneventfully, dissipating south-east of Newfoundland August 30th.
KATE didn’t bother anyone either. This had an unremarkable crossing and found a brief development window to the north-east of the Leeward Islands on August 30th but was done and dusted within a day.
A westbound disturbance emerged off the African coast on August 31st and quickly formed tropical storm LARRY, moving quickly east and reaching category one hurricane intensity on September 2nd . After undergoing a period of rapid intensification, LARRY became a major category three hurricane early on September 4th. After milling about for a few days as a strong fishstorm, LARRY made a category one landfall in Newfoundland on September 11th until it was picked up by a larger extratropical cyclone near Greenland. During its Atlantic crossing, LARRY had passed well to the east of Bermuda, however rough surf and rip currents generated by its vast windfield led to five fatalities, one each in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Florida, and Virginia.
There had been considerable speculation surrounding a low pressure cell forming in the far southwest Caribbean, which eventually piped up on August 30th. This moved along the Caribbean coast of central America, across the Yucatan Peninsula, and into the Gulf of Mexico where it formed tropical storm MINDY on September 8th. This curved quickly east and made landfall on St. Vincent Island, Florida the following day. This made a spirited attempt to reform in the Atlantic as it moved off the coast of Georgia but became post-tropical and merged with a cold front early on September 10th.
NICHOLAS formed in almost the same area as MINDY which eventually developed into a slow and erratic tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico on September 12th. With a leisurely track over warm water, this had all the makings of a rainmaker. On September 14th, observers reported sustained winds of 65 knots prompting the National Hurricane Centre to upgrade the storm to category one hurricane status shortly before landfall close to the south of Sargent Beach, Texas, The system quickly weakened as it moved inland to tropical storm strength as it passed over Galveston Bay. By September 15th NICHOLAS had weakened to a tropical depression as the system moved toward the east-nor’east. The storm brought heavy rainfall and storm surges to parts of Texas and Louisiana. Some of the affected areas were still recovering from the effects of IDA, which had impacted the same area a few weeks previously.
Short-lived fish storm ODETTE formed off the eastern seaboard on September 17th over warm water about 200 miles off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This was kept in check by upper level wind shear as it ran parallel to the eastern seaboard until losing formation altogether on September 18th around 300 miles east-sou-east of Atlantic City. The remnants loafed around for a few days but didn’t really bother anyone.
We picked PETER up as it left the African coast on September 11th and the professional agencies followed suit over the next four to five days. This deepened into a tropical storm on September 19th some 600 miles east of the Leeward Islands and quickly intensified into tropical storm PETER. As the storm approached the northern Leeward Islands it ran into upper level shear and shifted to a north-westerly track and began weakening until dissipating north of Puerto Rico on September 23rd. Aside from heavy rain across the islands of the northern Caribbean, this was not memorable.
ROSE didn’t make much of a mark either. We spotted a low pressure cell slipping the African coast on September 14th and began daily plotting, but this was against the run of play and rather disorganised. By September 19th, this showed a clear convection cycle and was identified as tropical storm ROSE. The storm began an uneventful and fairly weak track into Atlantic anonymity and was off radar by September 22nd.
Summarising SAM is a task in itself. This was a strong, long-lived hurricane that briefly threatened Bermuda, and stretched from its formation off the African coast on September 19th until disappearing over Greenland on October 9th. This developed into a tropical storm on September 23rd, already starting to curve early to the north-west. As it did so, the glass fell rapidly and SAM became a category one hurricane on September 24th and with frightening speed, reached Category 4 status late the following day with 135 knot winds. A fish storm without doubt, but a horrifying encounter for shipping. A sequence of eyewall replacement cycles had the intensity wavering between category two and four as it tracked across the central Atlantic. Storm cones were hoisted in Bermuda on September 30th but fortunately, the storm took a more northerly turn and passed clear. SAM deteriorated as it moved across progressively cooler sea surface temperatures in more northerly latitudes until its remnants were absorbed by a frontal system between Iceland and Greenland October 9th.
Subtropical storm TERESA was to be another fish storm which piped up to the south-east of Bermuda on September 23rd. From the outset TERESA was battling cooling waters, dry air, and wind shear and was done and dusted within 24 hours, without bothering anyone ashore.
VICTOR was also destined to dodge the record books. We saw this shaping up before it moved over the African coast on September 24th and two days later, it was formally recognised by the National Hurricane Centre. This moved slowly past the Cape Verde Islands and became tropical storm VICTOR late on September 29th. Like ROSE and SAM, VICTOR also took an early turn towards the north and intensified slightly but hit an unusual band of southerly wind shear in the east central Atlantic and was absorbed by a trough of low pressure on October 4th.
The avid film buffs amongst us were delighted the final disturbance of the season became a fishstorm called WANDA. This originated from non-tropical disturbance over the southern United States on October 23rd which subsequently moved out into the Atlantic. The professional seafarers and purists amongst you who know this part of the Atlantic would not forgive me for not describing its true origin as a ‘nor’easter’. The system quickly developed into a powerful storm, (raising another definition as a ‘bomb-cyclone’ i.e. when the central pressure decreases by 24 mbar or more in 24 hours – yes, I need to get out more) off the eastern seaboard on October 27th causing flooding and bringing powerful gale-force winds to the region in the process. At this time, the storm was designated WANDA. This then described an erratic track through all points of the compass – well clear of land – before accelerating to the north-east and being absorbed by an eastbound extratropical cyclone on November 7th. At the storm’s peak before launching into the Atlantic, two lives were lost ashore.
At the end of the record-breaking 2020 season, we reported on a dreadful final tally of 486 deaths, preceded by 99 in 2019, 119 in 2018 and 867 in 2017. The tally for 2021 has now reached 178 souls lost. This is again a disaster in humanitarian terms.
Most of you will know that I draw information from a number of sources, varying from the reliable agencies such as the UK Met Office, a couple of Europeans and of course many US particularly military sources. In quiet times, I check out some of the more eccentric storm enthusiasts who can always be relied upon to see a cumulus cloud and predict Armageddon. One such observer is the committed catastrophist blind-sniper, the Canadian guy who seems to have acquired a popular following amongst you, judging from feedback received. At least twice this season, he forecast a track which passed over south-east England. This has become something of a trend over the past few years and I have no doubt that he is on to me.
I would like to thank the many addressees who have sent feedback and comment throughout the season, particularly the Canadian Guy Fan Club. Always much appreciated. I think we have replied to all. We have been posting these reports on our website www.watkins-marine.com and using the dark art of Twitter@watkinsmarine and will continue to use these to disseminate matters of lesser maritime interest through the winter months.
Without wanting this to sound like a ghastly, tedious awards ceremony, I would like to say thanks to three people without whom I’d be firmly up the mucky creek.
Insomniac Carol Wright at our branding, digital and design agency friends Advantage London www.advantagelondon.com sits up at all hours of the night waiting to receive my bulletin, depending on my time zone, to post our bulletins on social media.
Dhiren Lal is the poor fellow who understands the obstacles a grumpy, IT-illiterate, old sailor faces with anything more advanced than morse code or semaphore. Technological progress actually made his job harder this year, but he pressed on with neither assistance nor complaint.
Despite taking an early departure for maternity leave, Energy Underwriter Laura Borley has provided me with constant, diligent and unflappable support behind the scenes over the years and I am indebted to her for maintaining our growing address list.
My sincere thanks to all three of them.
That’s me then. Finished With Engines 2021.