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Climate

The Hurricane Bookies

Will America’s luck hold in 2024? The oddsmakers — that is, scientists — have a bad feeling.

A hurricane reflected in binoculars.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Are you feeling lucky?

Americans are. Close to two-thirds say they’ve gambled in the past year; the sports pages are filled with headlines detailing the fallout of various investigations and scandals. But while there isn’t exactly a bookmaker for something like the Atlantic hurricane season, meteorologists around the country are feeling pretty good about their bets this time around.

“We could be extremely wrong and only have two hurricanes,” Philip Klotzbach, one of the authors of the Colorado State University’s 2024 forecast, which came out earlier this month and predicted a whopping 23 named storms, told me. “But I think the odds of that this year are very low, just because the Atlantic is so warm.”

Traditionally, early spring is when Americans begin to hear from agencies and universities about the upcoming Atlantic storm season. That won’t peak for another four or five months, and from the safety of April, it can be tough to muster concern about what late summer might yet inflict upon the nation’s coasts.

Still, the trickle of headlines this year has been nothing short of alarming. In addition to CSU’s prediction, North Carolina State University issued a forecast of between 15 and 20 named storms in 2024, meaning we could potentially tick well above the 1991-2020 average of 14 per year. On Wednesday, the Weather Channel upped the ante with a new estimate of 24 named storms. AccuWeather Lead Hurricane Forecaster Alex DaSilva told me his team estimates there is a 15% chance of 30 or more named storms this year — enough to break the record set in 2020 and exhaust the World Meteorological Organization pre-prepared list of 21 storm names, forcing it to dip into its new and never-before-used “supplemental” list.

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is busy putting together its own forecast, a massive, multi-agency collaboration between the National Climate Prediction Center, the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center, and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic & Meteorological Laboratory. While the government’s final prediction is still a few weeks away from being made public in May, Matthew Rosencrans, the lead hurricane season forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, told me the agency’s ocean team has been providing monthly briefings on the Atlantic’s record warmth to the forecasters. Of particular concern to the teams is the fact that even if the summer sea surface warms at the lowest rateof any year since 1980, 2024 will still be in the top four of all sea surface temperature years since then.

Michael Lowry, the hurricane and storm surge specialist at Miami’s WPLG Local 10 News, told me this is what has him the most alarmed. “I struggle to find a good language to say how extreme and unprecedented it is, but it’s extreme and unprecedented and almost scary, the amount of warmth that we’re looking at in the Atlantic,” he said.

Warm water, of course, is hurricane Red Bull — it can increase a storm’s destructive potential, taking forecasters by surprise. In addition to the waning El Niño and the likely start of a La Niña — which will make the wind conditions more favorable to Atlantic storm formation — all the agencies I spoke with cited the sea-surface temperatures as a concerning complication in their predictive models. Klotzbach, the CSU researcher, told me the record-warm water gives him more confidence in his models than he would otherwise have this early in April because of the strong correlation between warm waters and storm formation; DaSilva, at AccuWeather, told me it is these same temperatures that have made him concerned about the potential for rapidly intensifying storms like Hurricane Ian in 2022.

Kerry Emanuel, professor emeritus in atmospheric science at MIT, was not as impressed by the predictions, however. Putting a numerical estimate on how many hurricanes will form in the North Atlantic in a given season is “not really very interesting or practical,” he told me. “If you’re a gambler, and you’re placing a bet, OK — but if you’re a coastal resident, what you really care about is relatively intense landfalling storms.”

The more storms there are in the Atlantic in a given season, the more likely intense storms will make landfall — “but not a lot” more likely, Emanuel stressed. Because of that, when it comes to making hurricane season predictions, “I wish NOAA would knock it off because it’s intentionally misleading,” he said.

Emanuel wasn’t alone in his dismissal of the seasonal forecasts. “I’ve got to be straight with you: I think they have limited utility,” John Cangialosi, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, who focuses more on tracking storms as they form, told me. “It’s sort of like in Powerball, when someone sees $30 million and is like, ‘I’m going to play if it’s $5 million or not,’” he added. “It’s so damn silly. You need to worry about this no matter what.”

That’s because describing hurricane seasons as “quiet” or “active” is really a matter of perspective, even if it makes for good headlines. For example, most people consider 2023 to have been a quiet year since almost no major storms made landfall on U.S. coasts. “But it was a very busy season; just fortunately, most of the storms stayed out at sea,” Klotzbach, of CSU, told me.

In a sense, America merely got a lucky break. While Hurricane Idalia, the strongest storm to hit Florida’s Big Bend region in 125 years, made landfall in 2023, its greatest impact was in a sparsely populated area, leading to limited damage and loss of life. On the other hand, 1992 was technically a “quiet” year for hurricane formation, but all it took was one storm — in that case, Hurricane Andrew, which killed over 60 people and was one of the costliest storms in U.S. history — to cement it in our collective memory.

Further complicating the picture that hurricane forecasts paint is, of course, climate change. The combination of record-warm Atlantic waters and a forecast for an active year makes it tempting to tie the two together. “The human mind is so good at pattern recognition that it wants to attribute a cause to every effect,” Emanuel, the MIT professor, said.

But there’s a whole cocktail of factors driving the Atlantic’s bonkers-warm temperature, including the aforementioned El Niño, which is just part of a naturally occurring global weather pattern known as ENSO; the decreasing presence of sulfur dioxide aerosols, which have a cooling effect; the Tonga volcano eruption, which might have had a temporary warming effect; and yes, greenhouse gas emissions. The lack of clarity around this larger picture has led some researchers to sound an alarm about the urgency of sharpening our understanding; climate change, however, can only confidently be credited with a small portion of the current anomalous spike in sea surface temperatures, which in turn only explains only about 35% to 40% of the changes in tropical cyclone activity.

“It’s not fair to say climate change has caused record warmth, which has caused record hurricanes,” Cangialosi, at the Climate Prediction Center, said. “Because, guess what? Next year we could be in a cool phase — and then where did climate change go?”

That’s far from saying climate change isn’t a factor at all; we just need to be careful with our scales. Besides, there are things we know are directly connected to climate change — like rising sea levels and increased rainfall — that will make hurricane landfalls deadlier in the coming decades.

Hurricane forecasts aren’t totally useless, either. For one thing, they have enormous scientific value, helping researchers better understand the amalgamation of conditions that go into the formation of a major tropical storm. Lowry, the Florida-based meteorologist, also joked they can help confirm that “my job may be a lot busier in the next few months.”

There is a public value, too: Headlines inarguably help keep the approaching season top-of-mind. This is especially important for the masses of new residents who have recently moved to the Gulf Coast and Southeastern shores — undeterred by subsidized insurance rates that don’t properly warn of the region’s risk — and might lack knowledge of how to prepare for the season.

After all, Mother Nature ultimately has the house advantage. And while America was spared a catastrophic storm in 2023, luck has a funny way of running out.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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