Stand by Engines
Welcome to our eleventh year of daily reports for the Atlantic basin, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico storm season. New readers who recoil with horror seeing endless pages of text may rest assured that this is by far the most I would expect anyone to read, being our joint summary of 2018 and forecast for 2019. We get the daily report done in a paragraph or two. The season is given a nominal start date of June 1st by various professional agencies, analysts and vile weather enthusiasts continuing through to a frankly overambitious end on November 30th. We thought we'd get this summary out early and start the daily reports in the coming month. Our aim is to provide a daily simple, plainly worded and - one hopes – reasonably accurate forecast. 2018 – The Butcher's Bill.
My reluctant prediction for the 2018 storm season was for 15 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes. The final tally was a third consecutive above-average season for the North Atlantic with 15 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes, so we weren't far out but more luck than judgement, I'd suggest. We reported our first potential storm candidate on 18th May when a small disturbance started to loaf about aimlessly in the far south western Caribbean. The sharp-eyed professional observers joined rapidly three days later as it inched towards the Yucatan Channel and by 25th, it was all aboard the Skylark for subtropical storm ALBERTO (incidentally making this the fourth-consecutive season in which storms formed prior to June 1st). After entering the Gulf of Mexico ALBERTO transitioned into a tropical storm and reached a fairly weak peak intensity making a forgettable landfall near Laguna Beach, Florida on the night of the 28th May.
We went into a period of ‘Storm season? What storm season?' for a month, as we watched wave after wave of pressure gradients hitting Saharan sand to the east and upper level wind shear to the west. The month was not without incident though, as some formations which did not reach storm force, were still able to pack a torrential rain punch with landfalls across the Gulf coast states.
On 1st July, we picked up our second suspect as it slipped the African coast putting up a spirited fight against airborne sand. By July 4th, in a daily report littered with regrettable Star Spangled Banner puns (I'll try and resist that temptation this year) we were fairly certain that this would be the second storm of the season and predicted a track well to the east of the land of the free etc. (I am so sorry. I can only apologise again). Early the next day, this had formal recognition and became Tropical Storm BERYL intensifying to hurricane intensity early on July 6th which weakened quickly keeping well clear of land with a revival on July 14th forming a subtropical storm near Bermuda before dissipating altogether. Tropical Storm CHRIS piped up near Bermuda on July 8th. This had battled against dry air on its Atlantic crossing becoming a hurricane on July 10th, briefly reaching category 2 the next day. CHRIS remained at rest between Bermuda and North Carolina for a few days before turning to trace the eastern seaboard. This caused heavy coastal rain until the fading remnants finally crossed Labrador. One fatality was attributed to CHRIS when a 62 year old swimmer drowned off Kill Devil Hills beach, North Carolina.
The rest of July was as dry as a moth sandwich as Saharan air dominated the convergence zone until August 4th when another westbound disturbance became Tropical Storm DEBBY. This peaked on 8th August and was gone by 9th. DEBBY was destined to remain a fish storm and, to the disappointment of some of the more avid vintage motion picture enthusiasts amongst our readership, remained a long way from Dallas. A non-tropical low over the north Atlantic formed Subtropical Storm ERNESTO on August 15th when it was already headed away from the eastern seaboard. This has a couple of attempts to kick-start into something more impressive, but was outdone by its own ground speed. The only eventual impact ashore was some heavy rainfall and gusty winds on the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland. Sixth sense had us watching the disturbance that would become FLORENCE, almost from the moment it left the African coast on August 23rd. On August 28th the National Hurricane Centre raised the possibility of tropical development which transpired on August 31st when this became Tropical Storm FLORENCE. Gradual intensification occurred as FLORENCE tracked west-nor ‘west until September 4th when this became the third hurricane of the 2018 season and unexpectedly underwent rapid intensification into a category 3 major hurricane. Strong wind shear intervened briefly but the cyclone regained hurricane strength on September 9th and reached category 4 on 10th with peak intensity winds of 122 knots.
By the evening of September 13th, FLORENCE had been downgraded to a category 1 hurricane but began to stall as it neared the Carolina coastline, producing a devastating rainmaker making landfall close to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina as the wettest tropical cyclone on record for both North and South Carolina. FLORENCE degenerated to a post-tropical cyclone over West Virginia on September 17th , and two days later, the remnants were absorbed into another frontal system. Despite a weakened landfall as a category 1 hurricane, FLORENCE still had enough wind speed to cause widespread damage throughout the Carolinas. Ashore, the storm's forward motion slowed to a crawl allowing time for biblical quantities of rain along coastal areas including a short period stalled offshore west of Wilmington. Coupled with a large storm surge, this caused widespread flooding along a long stretch of the North Carolina coast, from New Bern to Wilmington. As the storm moved inland heavy rain caused widespread inland flooding, inundating Fayetteville, Smithfield, Lumberton, Durham, and Chapel Hill, as major rivers such as the Neuse, Eno, Cape Fear and Lumber broke their banks. Many places received record-breaking rainfall, with more than 30 inches measured in some locations. At least 55 deaths were attributed to FLORENCE.
We picked up on a westbound disturbance on 24th August, a few days after leaving the African coast. This was something of a leap of faith, as even our old friend, the Blind Sniper had dismissed this as bound for an early grave in airborne sand. This became Tropical Storm GORDON on the night of September 3rd as it crossed the Florida Keys. Although the storm intensified slightly as it moved over southern Florida, vertical convection suffered at the hands of upper level shear. Late on September 4th, GORDON reached peak shortly before landfall just west of the Alabama-Mississippi border and rapidly degraded into a tropical depression. Moving further inland and quickly weakening, GORDON lingered over the south-eastern United States for the next two days, before finally degenerating into a remnant low on September 8th.
On September 7th, a new disturbance left the African coast and rapidly organised. The following day, still close to the Cape Verde Islands, this became Tropical Storm HELENE and reached hurricane force the next day reaching category 2 intensity. Over the next two weeks, HELENE bounced around in the central Atlantic, alternately strengthening and weakening between tropical storm and hurricane force before crossing the Azores. This triggered flooding which claimed three lives, before the remnants scooted off to the north-east and lightly brushed the west coast of Ireland. On September 8th, a westbound disturbance in the central Atlantic developed into Tropical Storm ISAAC and became a category 1 hurricane two days later. This looked to be bad news for the islands of the western Caribbean, but hit upper level shear and weakened again the following day. This continued to track west and despite a few attempts at rallying, crossed the Leeward Islands on 13th September as a weak tropical storm and weakened to nothing two days later. A non-tropical low formed along a trough of low pressure in the north-central Atlantic on September 11th and milled around for 8 days without impacting land.
On September 12th this became Subtropical Storm JOYCE but was comprehensively overwhelmed by HELENE. This cyclone had a sort roller coaster ride of varying intensities but was only of interest to fish and sailors. On September 19th JOYCE weakened into a remnant low and was gone. We thrashed Star Trek gags to death with KIRK which formed a tropical storm on the eastern side of the Atlantic centre line on September 22nd. Little change in strength occurred as KIRK beamed west, possibly owing to its warp strength ground speed, and it weakened to a tropical depression early on September 24th. This rallied on September 26th and KIRK became tropical storm again as it approached the Windward Islands. Again, upper level wind shear saved the day and this became a weak storm at landfall on St. Lucia on 27th and did not survive beyond 48 hours after entering the Caribbean. This was season over for the Windward Islands.
Hurricane LESLIE seemed to be the storm that would not go away. The four-week lifespan began south-west of the Azores and then described a sequence of intensity variations between tropical depression and category 1 hurricane over some erratic tracks, but all clear of land. Finally, a weakening LESLIE clipped Madeira on October 11th and made a remnant landfall close to Lisbon on 13th but still as powerful extratropical cyclone causing widespread damage and disruption, thereafter bound for Madrid. Apparently. Then came MICHAEL. This began growth in a broad area of low pressure that had developed over the south-western Caribbean under a canopy of strong upper-level wind shear. This gave early comfort to the modellers but was unfortunately short-lived and the cyclone became better organised as it drifted north and east towards the Yucatán channel. By October 6th, few were in any doubt as to where this was going. The following day, this became Tropical Storm MICHAEL and 24 hours later, hit hurricane strength. On October 9th while approaching the Gulf coast, MICHAEL strengthened into a major hurricane, failing to realise the traditional weakening-before-landfall. MICHAEL became a category 4 storm when it crossed Mexico beach in Florida with sustained winds of a terrifying 135 knots, becoming the strongest storm of the season and the third-strongest landfall in terms of barometric pressure) on record. In human terms, this was an awful, awful storm. MICHAEL was the direct cause of 8 fatalities in Honduras, 4 in Nicaragua, and 3 in El Salvador. In the United States, at least 45 were killed across Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
On October 7th an area of low pressure associated with a late-season tropical wave piped up several hundred miles south of the Cape Verde Islands and showed development prospects as it tracked west-nor'west across the eastern Atlantic Ocean, and became Tropical Storm NADINE on October 9th. Gradual intensification ensued as NADINE moved north-west reaching peak intensity the following day. This was a small storm which quickly encountered an increasingly unfavourable environment suffering under strong upper level wind shear. On October 13th NADINE lost shape and dissipated without any impact on land. A new disturbance in the central Atlantic became visible on satellite imagery on October 23rd. By October 27th there was sufficient evidence of vertical convection for this to be classified as Subtropical Storm OSCAR. This continued to intensify as it accelerated south around a broad upper-level low pressure formation until it formed a tangible eye on 28th and transitioned into tropical storm OSCAR, rapidly upgrading to a category 1 hurricane. OSCAR reached peak intensity as category 2 hurricane early on October 30th before accelerating north over increasingly colder waters passing well to the east of Bermuda. There was some chatter on the wires that this would make a flying visit to the British Isles and the Canadian guy briefly drew a track suspiciously close to my home, but this was short-lived and OSCAR ended as it began, as a fish storm, and lost itself somewhere in the murk and muck of the North Atlantic winter. In all, an estimated 119 deaths. This was another dreadful season in humanitarian terms.
2019 Reluctant Forecast I have a sailor's natural disdain for long-range forecasts and ten years of this has taught me that I'm no smarter now than I was when I was dodging storms for a living. The more that I learn, the less I know. As things stand, there are some early indications that the Atlantic season could get off to a slow start or perhaps be slightly below-average in number of developed storms due to a lingering El Niño, leading to warmer-than-normal waters in the eastern Pacific. Warm Pacific waters = thunderstorms in the far east Pacific = increased wind shear = inhibited tropical development in the Atlantic. The long-range outlook however may suggest an average level of storm activity, with some uncertainty over the effect of El Niño. If the current El Niño continues or strengthens, then the number of tropical storms and hurricanes will be near or below normal but if the El Niño weakens to neutral, the number of tropical storms and hurricanes could be higher than normal. Increasing uncertainty based on ‘freak weather' becoming less freak and more mainstream has had the modellers all over the place for this year's forecast. I always like to look at Colorado State University at this time of year for sound reasoning. CSU do not publish predicted numbers per se but use an ‘accumulated cyclone energy' figure (ACE) but do usually provide a decent nudge for number enthusiasts. Not so this year. They have opted for an ACE figure of around 80 for the season, which would equate to 8 to 11 named tropical storms, 3 to 5 hurricanes and 1 to 2 major hurricanes but then throw a spanner in the works with a 25% chance of an ACE of 130 which would be well above average, citing El Niño uncertainty as the reason for this fudge. I'm not convinced that El Nino will continue to strengthen, so will take a slightly more pessimistic view. Granted, Atlantic sea surface temperatures are currently slightly below their long-term averages, which is a passion killer for the lusty storm, but I would expect to see some heat return as the season develops.
On the basis of one guess being as good as any other, my reluctant prediction is for 13 named storms, 6 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes. As ever, I hope this is a wild –overestimation. Names this year are ANDREA, BARRY, CHANTAL, DORIA, ERIN, FERDINAND, GABRIELLE, HUMBERTO, IMELDA, JERRY, KAREN, LORENZO, MELISSA (which is my predicted final storm), NESTOR, OLGA, PABLO, REBEKAH, SEBASTIEN, TANYA, VAN & WENDY. Names are recycled in this way but rotters are retired - hence IMELDA replaces INGRID which claimed at least 155 lives in Mexico in 2013.
Many of you will be aware 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 occasionally share a snippet from one 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 Canadian guy, or ‘blind sniper', who seems to have acquired a popular following amongst you, judging from feedback received. He has had the odd success over the years, but has only been remarkable by fairly consistent inaccuracy. However, credit where credit is due. Deranged or not, he was spot on with FLORENCE and MICHAEL. He did at one point produce a track for OSCAR last year which would have passed directly over my house. This gives me cause to suspect that he is on to me and knows where I live.
We start collecting information early each morning London time. Once the overnight reports are in from the US (mid-afternoon our time), we issue our daily report as an email. Later these reports are posted on our website at www.watkins-marine.com and using Twitter on @watkinsmarine - do follow us if you dabble in such dark arts.
Thanks to the many addressees who have sent kind messages of thanks and feedback at the end of the 2018 season, particularly the growing Blind Sniper Fan Club. Always much appreciated. I think we have replied to all as indeed we endeavour to do, throughout the season. Please note that I can only access incoming mail to this address when I am in London but I often travel, which may mean a delayed reply. Please feel free to pass our details onto friends and colleagues who may wish to be added to our circulation list by email to Laura on email@example.com or myself firstname.lastname@example.org This is free and distributed without restriction.
Stand By Engines.