Munich Re Syndicate 2020 Atlantic, Caribbean & Gulf of Mexico storm season. Stand by Engines.

Welcome to our twelfth 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 2019 and forecast for 2020. We get the daily report done in a paragraph or two.

This report is sent out daily to over 700 recipients and for those who dabble in the dark arts, later posted on Twitter @Watkinsmarine and on our website www.watkins-marine.com. This is a free service and distributed without restriction. If you would like colleagues or friends to be added to the list, please contact either Laura lborley@munichre.com or myself amccourt@munichre.com and we will add them to the list. Do follow our Twitter account where amongst other things, we occasionally post other matters of maritime interest, some history for the buffs and images of unaffordable yachts. We are closing in on 10,000 followers and it would be nice to reach that target this season.

This started life as a very brief, easy-to-read daily and when appropriate, light-hearted bulletin for the energy team. As more syndicate staff asked to be added, we began to receive requests from third parties, brokers initially, then other underwriters. Now we have a wide range of addressees including offshore operators, superyacht Captains and owners, fishermen, drillers and seafarers. Last year I was contacted by a Police Officer in Georgia who has apparently been an avid reader for some years and wanted to thank me for the pleasant weather on the day of her husband's funeral.

For the benefit of regular readers and indeed newcomers, I make it absolutely clear with the cynicism of a true seafarer, that I don't trust weather forecasts, and nor should you, least of all mine. I have spent far too much time at sea being chucked about like a puppy's slipper up to my knees in green water being assured by someone behind a distant desk, that I am having a bright, sunny and calm day. We simply look at weather maps and filter the opinion of various professional agencies, smart analysts and vile weather enthusiasts and produce a regurgitated opinion. We check the overnight charts each morning and then the early reports from the US agencies around midday then produce our own, which usually then goes out early in the afternoon UK time. The nominal start to the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico season is June 1st and ends on November 30th. For every day throughout the season, our aim is to provide a daily simple, plainly worded and - one hopes – reasonably accurate forecast. . I'm sending this out a little earlier this year as I was caught with early starters in both 2018 and 2019 and I have a sneaking suspicion something is taking shape around the Bahamas in a few days. I may even start this afternoon.

While many addressees are in the business of managing risk and its financial impact, I think it appropriate to also reflect on human cost at the close of each season, a reminder of our own frailty (if his year we need one) in the face of natural catastrophe. 

To set the scene for 2020, the summary and the butcher's bill for the 2019 season.

An early development on 21st May evolved from a large and elongated area of clouds and thunderstorms some 250 miles south-west of Bermuda. This briefly formed a closed circulation pattern with a well-defined centre and sustained winds of 35 gusting 45 knots. This was upgraded to subtropical storm ANDREA, becoming the fifth consecutive season in which a storm had formed prior to June 1st. Other than some mild unpleasantness offshore, this gave no cause for concern and was quickly absorbed by a convenient cold front.

The production line began firing up towards the end of June, but upper level shear had the order of the day for over a month until a trough of low pressure formed over Georgia on July 7th with an twinkle in its eye for the Gulf of Mexico. This continued to track south until crossing the Florida panhandle and going seaborne on July 9th, developing rather quickly and turning west as it briefly became category one hurricane BARRY. This began to weaken as it approached the coast, but still caused extensive damage across Lafayette, Lake Charles and Baton Rouge as a tropical storm, and gradually weakened while slowly moving inland. This didn't disappear completely until absorbed by another frontal system as a remnant low off the coast of New Jersey on July 19th. One fatality was reported with a swimmer drowned in a rip current off the coast of the Florida Panhandle on July 15th. 

The season was still slow moving and no further developments were reported for almost a month. On August 14, a cold front moved across the south eastern seaboard and remained stationary for several days until a defined circulation centre developed on 20th August as it began to move harmlessly seaward. This became tropical storm CHANTAL early on August 21st, some 600 miles south of Newfoundland. Marginal sea surface temperatures and moderate-to-strong south-westerly shear prevented significant development and this soon weakened. At this time, with peak season approaching and barely a glimmer of sign of development in the offing, modellers were reviewing season predictions. To the surprise of many, NOAA increased their prediction to 17 named storms which proved to be an accurate prediction, albeit flying in the face of most other respected forecasters.

On August 23rd, a low pressure system started to develop around mid-way between the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean. This carried on pushing west, developing as it did so until reaching tropical storm strength on August 25th, designated DORIAN. This curved slightly north of track as it expanded and deepened, reaching category one hurricane intensity close to landfall in the US Virgin Islands. Despite a brush with land and some dry air in the convection column, this intensified rapidly reaching category five early on September 1st as it headed for the Bahamas. DORIAN continued to intensify and became the most powerful storm to impact the north-west Bahamas since modern records began, making a landfall on Elbow Cay with sustained winds of a horrifying 160 knots at 1640 local time. Despite losing a little energy at landfall, it again intensified and at 0200 on September 2nd, made a third landfall at peak strength on Grand Bahama. Weakening followed, but DORIAN was far from done and began moving slowly north-east parallel to the coast of Florida, expanding its windfield as it crossed the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. The storm reintensified briefly but then began to weaken before making a fourth landfall on Cape Hatteras, still as a category one hurricane around noon on September 6th. With still more to follow, the storm drifted on and off the coast making a fifth landfall in Sambro Creek, Nova Scotia on 7th September and a sixth later in northern Newfoundland before it finally weakened and moved seaward on September 9th. Hurricane DORIAN resulted in around 70 deaths and widespread damage, mostly in the Bahamas, which was hardest hit.

In the shadow of DORIAN, ERIN started life as a large band of showers and thunderstorms in the south-west Atlantic on August 20th. This tracked north west, moving over south-eastern Florida on August 24th when it seemed to have lost formation in a deep trough. Deep convection along the trough revived this depression until it formed small and weak tropical storm ERIN about 270 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras late on August 27th. This coincided with a sharp turn to the north-west and an onslaught of upper level wind shear. Rapid weakening followed and ERIN was off radar within 48 hours. Despite no significant impact as a tropical storm, the remnants made merry with rainfall as it continued its path towards Nova Scotia producing record amounts of rainfall across the coast of Atlantic Canada.

Whilst DORIAN continued to dominate the headlines, I picked up a new formation headed towards the south-central Gulf of Mexico on August 30th, which the professional observers promptly identified an impressive two days later. On 2nd September, having moved west to a position north of the Yucatan Channel, this began to show a closed circulation centre and on September 3rd, had reached tropical storm force, designated FERNAND. By then, the system had turned west to make a landfall just north of La Pesca, in Tamaulipas, Mexico, on September 4th bringing biblical amounts of rainfall and some storm surge. The storm weakened rapidly and dissipated within 12 hours of landfall but not before dumping considerable amounts of rain and localised flooding across central Mexico and southern Texas. In García, one man died after he was swept away by floodwaters while attempting to clear a drain.

While DORIAN was still blowing a hoolie, our first east Atlantic fish storm quietly spun off the production line. We had seen aerial imagery of a system forming on August 30th as it left the African coast. Over the next few days, the disturbance slowly organised while moving west, and strengthened into the seventh tropical storm of the season, designated GABRIELLE, overnight on September 3rd. At this time, dry air was ruling the roost across the convergence zone and despite a spirited attempt to develop further, remained poorly organised, and was all but gone by September 6th. Some convection began to rally again and reformed a tropical storm on 7th September as the storm began tracking northeast. There followed a period of drunken meandering with no threat to land until finally heading northeast towards the British Isles and Ireland as it degenerated into an extratropical cyclone. The cyclone's remnants later struck the coast of the Irish Republic on September 12th with 30 knot winds. For those not familiar with the rugged wilds of the west coast of Ireland, 30 knot winds are what locals would describe as ‘calm'.

As DORIAN began to disappear from our screens, a new disturbance piped up to the northeast of the Lesser Antilles. This tracked west for a few days before becoming organised over the south-eastern Bahamas as it slowed to a crawl, becoming tropical storm HUMBERTO on September 14th as it passed east of Abaco Island. Early on September 16th, this intensified into a category one hurricane, while turning to the northeast. HUMBERTO further intensified into a category three major hurricane just after midnight on September 17th with a partial eye landfall along the north coast of the island, before heading harmlessly north-east and dissipating. There were no fatalities reported in Bermuda, however two swimmers lost their lives, one at Topsail Beach, North Carolina and a second near to St Augustine, Florida.

On September 14th, we began plotting an upper level low off the west coast of Florida which tracked west across the Gulf of Mexico for the next few days. By September 17th, the system had reached the east coast of Texas where it rapidly intensified to become tropical storm IMELDA. A short amount of sea time at storm strength was not going to make this a powerful storm in terms of wind damage, but an extended sea passage made this a considerable rainmaker. This was to become the fifth-wettest tropical cyclone on record in the continental United States, causing devastating and record-breaking floods in southeast Texas with heavy rain and dangerous flooding to parts of south-eastern Texas, especially the cities of Galveston and Beaumont. IMELDA weakened after landfall, but continued bringing large amounts of flooding rain to Texas and Louisiana, before dissipating on September 21ST. One man died after his truck submerged in Houston, whilst another was electrocuted by a downed power line and drowned. In total, at least 5 deaths were attributed to the storm.

On September 9th a tropical wave moved off the coast of Africa and emerged into the Atlantic tracking slowly west through dry air. This remained disorganised until September 16th when the dry patch gave way to wet, rising air allowing organisation to significantly increase. On September 18th, this strengthened into a tropical storm, designated JERRY and reached category one hurricane intensity within 12 hours and category two, just 6 hours later. A fortuitous increase in upper-level wind shear caused the storm to weaken back to a tropical storm and curve away to the north east before bothering Bermuda.

A new tropical wave along the Atlantic production line began to show promise on September 18th, around half way between the Cape Verde Islands and the Lesser Antilles. This continued west, developing slowly until September 22nd when it developed a closed centre of circulation, reached tropical storm strength and was designated KAREN as it approached Tobago, causing severe flash floods and mudslides. After crossing the Lesser Antilles and emerging into the Caribbean, the storm weakened to a depression as it turned north, heading for Puerto Rico. Mudslides and power outages were reported in the U.S. Virgin Islands as KAREN passed the islands; more than 29,000 people lost power due to the storm in Puerto Rico. On September 23rd, the storm reintensified slightly but never regained a significant threat level due to unfavourable conditions, losing shape and formation on September 27th, well to the south-east of Bermuda.

I picked up on Disturbance Forty Two quite early on September 19th as it began emerge from the west coast of Africa, making an assumption that this had all the makings of a fish storm. We had the track right but could not predict its intensity and the tragedy it would cause at sea. On September 23rd, this had intensified quickly to become tropical storm LORENZO. Early on September 25th, the storm reached category one hurricane strength. On the morning of September 26th the storm underwent a further period of extremely rapid intensification bringing the storm up to category four major hurricane status. A cycle of eyewall replacement over warm water, unfettered by dry air or wind shear was to follow, freeing the system to oscillate in intensity between category three and a category five on September 29th with a peak sustained windspeed of 145 knots. This made LORENZO the easternmost category five Atlantic hurricane on record. With a quickening track to the north-east and an expanding wind field, LORENZO brushed past the western Azores on October 2nd, producing a storm with the strongest winds for a tropical cyclone there in 20 years. Thereafter, LORENZO transitioned into an extratropical cyclone shortly thereafter dashing racing towards Ireland where localised flooding and power outages occurred. Despite being principally a fish storm, this was a huge beast which produced a large swell across much of the Atlantic basin. As is becoming an annual tradition, the Canadian guy had this headed for the UK and specifically the bit I live in. I'm getting the picture, thanks. Four deaths were reported of swimmers drowned in rip currents along the coast of North Carolina, with a further two swept away by large waves along the coast of New York. Dangerous sea conditions also spread to Bermuda and as far south as the Caribbean coasts of South America. Flag of convenience offshore support vessel BOURBON RHODE capsized in violent seas on September 27th killing all but 3 of her crew of 14. These are the ocean's tough guys, designed and built to work in the most harsh of environments and don't ‘just sink'. Perish the thought that this won't be subject to a comprehensive investigation by the full force of the authorities of this renowned maritime nation, Luxembourg. Naturally, I look forward to distributing that to recipients of our safety bulletins. It's been eight months. In your own time, Guys.

On October 10th we began monitoring a non-tropical low pressure system which was tracking slowly along the eastern seaboard. This began to show signs of development with shower and thunderstorm activity becoming organised around a closed centre until it reached tropical storm strength (although by definition, sub-tropical) and was designated MELISSA. This was short-lived and began to head safely seaward before reaching storm status, degenerating and significantly decreasing in size before dissipating on October 14th. This fish storm also had some impact ashore, albeit gentle in comparison to LORENZO with heavy surf and storm surge along the coast of the mid-Atlantic states and the forced cancellation of the Long Beach International Kite Festival.

At this end of the season, all eyes are traditionally on the south western Caribbean. True to form, on October 11th, a long-awaited area of low pressure began to take shape. This slipped ashore then reappeared in the Bay of Campeche on October 16th. This quickly became organized as it passed over the warm waters of the southern Gulf of Mexico and reached tropical storm intensity, designated NESTOR late on October 18th. This accelerated and tracked north and east until it moved inland over the Florida panhandle late on October 19th causing heavy rainfall and coastal flooding and flash flooding. Heavy rain from NESTOR caused a car crash in South Carolina, which killed three people and left five injured.

Continuing with the late season mini-production line in the far west, we picked up a tropical wave over Belize on 22nd October which entered the Bay of Campeche overnight and developed rapidly, forming tropical storm OLGA on October 25th but quickly encountered a cold front. Nonetheless, the diminishing system continued towards the coast of Louisiana and made merry ashore with heavy rain and gusty winds, peaking near Mobile with some extensive power outages. Whilst off our marine radar, we continued tracking this as it accelerated northeast and eventually hit Canada, bringing muck and filth to Ontario and an unusually high 3m storm surge across Lake Erie before dissipating over Quebec.

Three more fish storms made the season's swansong. On October 25th, an area of concentrated thunderstorms formed a cyclone south-west of the Azores. This quickly organised becoming tropical storm PABLO. This was a tiny bruiser which, despite crossing cooler waters, formed a deep convection cycle and a decent eye, hitting the dizzy heights of category one hurricane status on October 27th as it passed east of the Azores. Ultimately, cool water ruled the day and the storm was done and dusted by October 28th.

As PABLO disappeared from our radar screens, another bruiser piped up 400 miles west of the Azores. This moved south and weakened, but subsequently began to acquire subtropical characteristics. On October 30th, convection had matured and this became subtropical storm REBEKAH quickly reaching intensity winds of just 45 knots. This loafed about for a days or two but soon also succumbed to the effects of cold water and faded from view north of the Azores.

The season's finale took shape on November 17th when a large area of thunderstorms associated with an upper-level low and a surface trough began to muster over the central Atlantic. This acquired surface circulation early on November 19th, and after developing a defined centre, was designated tropical storm SEBASTIEN. A last ditch of warm water and favourable upper-level conditions allowed the storm to strengthen, and reached category one hurricane intensity on November 21st. Over the next few days, the cyclone became less and less organised and its centre became difficult to locate, creating large uncertainty in its future track and some squabbling amongst the modellers, excluding the Canadian guy who appears to have packed up after PABLO and slept through the lot. After a day or two of lounging around aimlessly, with some slow intensification, SEBASTIEN headed towards the Azores, finally making its way to the north east of the islands and disappearing into North Atlantic muck and filth and joining the seasonal trail of goodwill towards north-western Europe without significant impact on land. 

I finally rang down Finished With Engines on the 2019 season on December 3rd.

In 2018, we had reported on a final tally of 119 deaths which was preceded by a dreadful estimated 867 deaths in 2017. Whilst any reduction on fatalities is most welcome, 99 avoidable deaths in 2019 remains a disaster in humanitarian terms.

 

Reluctant Forecast 2020

I have made plain my disdain for long-range forecasts and eleven 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. Nonetheless, I'll take a stab at a forecast.

First, water temperatures in the Pacific have a vital bearing on ‘our' season. Warm Pacific waters (El Niño) = thunderstorms in the far east Pacific = increased wind shear = inhibited tropical development in the Atlantic= Good news. Cool Pacific waters (La Niña) = falling air in the far east Pacific = decreased wind shear = aggressive storm development in the Atlantic. Bad news. Pacific water temperatures are slightly below normal. Slightly bad news.

Second, Atlantic water temperatures. Rising air is the engine for storm development. Warm water is the fuel. Water temperatures across the convergence zone from West Africa to the Caribbean are well above normal. Bad news.

I'm going to drift ashore for a while. There has been a well-seated trough of low pressure along the central Mississippi valley throughout the winter and to a degree, is likely to persist into the summer. This attracts upper level southerly winds which provide a steering current for westbound systems towards the North-west Caribbean, eastern Gulf of Mexico and the south-eastern continental United States. Also bad news.

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 is predicting 16 named storms, 8 hurricanes and 4 major hurricanes. They have expressed a slight increase in Pacific water temperature later in the season, a passion killer for lusty storms towards the autumn, but I think that's rather tenuous so have disregarded that.

On the basis of one guess being as good as any other, my reluctant prediction is for 17 named storms, 9 hurricanes and 5 major hurricanes. As ever, I hope this is a wild–overestimation.

Names this year are ARTHUR, BERTHA, CRISTOBAL, DOLLY, EDOUARD, FAY, GIBZAKI, HANNA, ISAIAS, JOSEPHINE, KYLE, LAURA, MARCO, NANA, OMAR, PAULETTE, RENE (my season end), SALLY, TEDDY, VICKY and WILFRED.

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. He did at one point produce a track last year which would have passed directly over my house, giving me some cause to suspect that he is on to me and knows where I live.

Thanks to the many of you who read our daily blurb who have sent kind messages of thanks and feedback at the end of the 2019 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 replies to the daily report when I am in London but I often travel, which may mean a delayed reply.

I should add here that views expressed in these reports are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Syndicate.

Here we go again, then. The 2020 Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico storm season.

Stand By Engines.

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