December 1st marks not only the official conclusion of the 2019 hurricane season, but the final month of another decade we failed to name before it ends. A decade in which cell phones became just phones, more Millennials visited Iceland than Sears, and politely declining to join your co-worker Janet’s essential oils MLM became increasingly difficult.
The 2010s were a decade of contrasts for Atlantic hurricanes. Despite darkest timeline storms like Sandy, Irma, and Michael, it was an era of remarkable luck for the continental U.S. coast. Cumulative Atlantic tropical cyclone activity in the 2010s tallied 20% above long-term norms, but there were only three U.S. major hurricane landfalls—around half of average.
Tropical activity is chunky due to oceanic and atmospheric memory, and the 2010s divide cleanly into three heftychonks. First, the Sriracha Era of 2010-2012 saw spicy open ocean activity but few landfalls; second, the 2013-15 Cronut Era fused low activity and few impacts; finally, the Tide Pod Era of 2016-2019 brought nausea-inducing elevated activity and repeated U.S. threats. Read on for a recap of each season and our reflections on the 2020s.
And now, the weather.
The distant past in which a shave and a haircut cost two bitcoins had one of the lowest ratios of U.S. landfalls to storm activity. Despite 19 named storms, tied for third-highest, and five major hurricanes, only two tropical storms and a spectacular double rainbow affected the continental U.S. in 2010. Category 4 Hurricane Earl menaced the Northeast, but ultimately remained well offshore.
The 2011 hurricane season was forgettable despite 19 tropical storms. The exception was Hurricane Irene, which made landfall as a category 1 in the Outer Banks and rocketed north-northeast over New York City as a tropical storm, causing $16 billion in water damage. These impacts were exacerbated by Tropical Storm Lee, which caused flooding in Louisiana and the besodden East Coast. Also, beneath its façade of radical indifference, with the perspective of time, it’s safe to say honey badger secretly cares a lot.
The 2012 hurricane season’s 19 storms and 10 hurricanes again mostly stayed out to sea, other than Louisiana’s category 1 Isaac, and generational freak storm Sandy. While Sandy became a non-tropical low prior to reaching shore, gales across a 1,000 mile diameter broke records for single-storm wind energy, sent surge up to 12’ into the Northeast, and flooded much of New York City.
Sandy was responsible for over 230 deaths and $70 billion in damages, slotting it temporarily as the second-costliest U.S. hurricane. As testament to Sandy’s bizarre co-mingling of tropical and mid-latitude weather, its remnants caused feet of snow in Appalachia, and allowed Taylor Swift to purchase Manhattan from panicked natives for $476 in Red tour merch.
The 2013 season was more incompetent than the deaf interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, tallying less than a third of normal activity. Two hurricanes formed, fewest since 1950, and one tropical storm made U.S. landfall.
The 2014 season couldn’t even with a powerful El Niño, though six hurricanes managed to awkwardly dab their way to net activity about two-thirds of normal. Eastern North Carolina shrugged off category 2 Arthur in early July.
The El Niño-hurricane feud continued, eclipsing even the vicious Taylor Swift-Sarah Koenig spat chronicled in “Bad Blood [Best Buy Payphone Remix].” The result was another season at 60% of normal and two early season U.S. tropical storms. Joaquin became a category 4 over the Bahamas, but after some intrigue absconded well offshore.
To this point, the continental U.S. had been enjoying a historically calm decade, with no major landfalls (or any Florida hurricanes) since 2005. Unfortunately, starting in 2016, a Zillennial generation of hurricanes broke out of the Atlantic’s meteorological escape room and headed for shore wreathed in clouds of cotton candy e-vapes.
Mean reversion was unkind to Florida, where category 1 Hermine snapped an eleven-year drought and caused outsized wind damage in the Panhandle. The marquee storm of 2016 was Matthew, which attained category 5 status in the Caribbean, hooked erratically north then west, scraped 30 miles off the Florida East Coast as a major hurricane, and weakened dramatically before landfall in South Carolina. Over $10 billion in damage occurred with this closest of calls.
Overall, 2016 notched 140% of typical hurricane activity, with storms clustering over Florida and the Southeast. The worst was yet to come.
This Fyre Festival of a year is the most destructive season on record. Not only did six major hurricanes catapult activity to 225% of normal, there were six landfalls on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Of these, Harvey and Irma became the second- and third-costliest continental U.S. storms.
Category 4 Harvey’s landfall in central Texas in August began an incredible five-week run of catastrophic hurricanes. Harvey did significant wind damage, but its most devastating impacts were biblical floods that overwhelmed the Houston metro area as the storm stalled for the next five days. Rainfall totals over 60” resulted in the loss of over 100 lives and damages estimated at $125 billion.
Yet, Harvey has competition for worst hurricane of 2017. Hurricane Irma generated more wind energy than the entire 2013 or 2015 seasons, shattered records for Category 5 longevity, and terrorized Florida for a week. Land interaction with Cuba clipped Irma’s wings on final approach, and the hurricane sliced through the Keys as a category 4 before striking Southwest Florida with 130 mph gusts and riding up the peninsula. Irma’s toll of over 130 deaths and $78 billion in destruction could have been yet worse.
Completing 2017’s fearsome triad, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico at category 4 intensity in late September, the strongest landfall there in 80 years. Otherwise, category 1 Nate was a relatively harmless cool-down for the Gulf Coast. A brutal year with far-reaching implications for emergency management and civic planning, 2017 was the worst season of 2010s, other than the last season of Dexter.
Cool water in the Tropical Atlantic pointed to a quiet 2018, but the season harnessed Big Subtropical Energy to climb 25% above normal with two epochal U.S. landfalls. A record seven subtropical storms occurred, and limited activity in the Deep Tropics was offset by intense storms between 20° and 40°N. Hurricane Florence epitomized this, plowing west across the unusually warm subtropical Atlantic to strike North Carolina. While Florence weakened to a category 1 by landfall, its glacial speed unleashed rain totals up to 36” on the Carolinas, causing over 50 deaths and $25 billion in damages.
And then there was Michael. There were only three category 5 U.S. landfalls prior to Michael—none in October, none on the Florida Gulf Coast. Its four-day blitzkrieg of dizzying intensification as it streaked out of the Caribbean and across the febrile eastern Gulf barely allowed North Florida to prepare for sustained winds to 160 mph and surge to 16’. Michael remained a category 3 with observed gusts to 120 mph into Georgia.
Hurricanes come and go, but category 5s last for generations. The numbers, nearly 60 U.S. deaths and a price tag of $25 billion, do not adequately describe the hellzone in Michael’s wake.
The 2019 season is a microcosm of the 2010s: a White Claw variety pack of tropical flavors including staggering rapid intensification, destructive flooding, and a northeast shift in where hurricanes developed and intensified.
On one hand, brief storms were plentiful. The weaker 80% of this year’s 18 storms cumulatively are responsible for less than 20% of 2019’s total wind energy. Climatologically, that inequality is absurd, like expecting the Joker to play by society’s rules. Among these weak storms was Hurricane Barry, a poorly organized category 1 that reached Louisiana in mid-July.
On the other, 2019 served up twin category 5 monsters. Lorenzo mercifully attained this status in the open Atlantic, well northeast of any known cat 5; Dorian cruelly expended more wind energy in the Bahamas than any other Atlantic hurricane had over any landmass, ever.
A classic Cape Verde hurricane, Dorian appeared poised to end South Florida’s post-Wilma luck. However, on approach to Abaco Island, the already formidable storm uncorked an insane rapid intensification event that launched its sustained winds to 185 mph, tied for the Atlantic’s second-highest. Worse, Dorian then stalled, lashing Grand Bahama Island with winds equivalent to an EF-4 tornado for 24 hours, resulting in the total destruction of many communities. Floridians held their breath as the compact hurricane subsequently crawled north just far enough offshore to avoid major damage. Dorian made landfall in North Carolina as a category 1.
The dodged bullet of Dorian was the only major U.S. threat in 2019, MoMo excepted. Tropical Storm Imelda organized hours before reaching land, but another multi-day stall brought rain totals over 40” and billions in flood damage to eastern Texas. Unfavorable Gulf shear in October prevented Nestor and Olga from making landfall as tropical storms, and net hurricane activity again totaled 25% above normal.
We’ve come a long way since 2010 (e.g., the friends kickin’ in the backseat with Rebecca Black have graduated pre-med programs with crushing student loan debt). What lessons can be drawn from this bimodal decade of immoderation, in which all hurricane seasons tallied either below 65% or over 120% of normal activity?
Comparing the tracks of the decade’s 72 hurricanes with climatology reveals contrasting regional anomalies. Much above normal hurricane activity was centered in the western Atlantic east of Florida and the Carolinas. The subtropical central and eastern Atlantic were also busy. The Main Development Region west of Africa was close to normal; the Gulf and Caribbean each saw far below typical hurricane frequency.
The paucity of near-shore hurricanes is reflected in U.S. landfall count (13) registering 80% of normal, despite seven active seasons of the decade’s ten. Curiously, the Florida East Coast evaded multiple scrapes and finished with no hurricane landfalls, against an expected three. Bottom line is if you’re in the Northeast U.S., North Florida, Southwest Florida, or Houston, your luck was not ideal. Everyone else, don’t complain.
So, here’s some possibly ill-advised predictions for the 2020s. First, the villain in Bee Movie 2 will be named Jeff Beezos, all legacy media will merge with Joe Rogan’s podcast, and global warming will be solved by mirroring the foot-thick layer of abandoned e-scooters covering Earth. Second, look for the multitudes contained in the 2019 hurricane season—mind-boggling rapid intensification, erratic stalls, destructive flooding—to continue to become more common in the next decade. Finally, expect more May starts to hurricane seasons, and for favored regions of development to keep expanding north.
Will the U.S. again be disproportionately fortunate in the 2020s? I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s no long-term trend in continental U.S. landfall energy, and the 2010s show that provident streaks often have violent ends. Shift Matthew or Dorian 75 miles west and we wouldn’t be talking about South Florida’s good fortune. Remember, hurricane seasons are chunky.
Let’s revisit these predictions in December 2029. In the meantime, see you next year for the first hurricane season of the 2020s, and with every ounce of #winning tigerblood in me, here’s wishing you a happy rest of the decade.
Dr. Ryan Truchelut is co-founder and chief meteorologist at WeatherTiger, a Tallahassee-based start-up providing advanced weather and climate analytics, forensic meteorology and expert witness services, and forecasting solutions to enterprises large and small. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, or support our hurricane forecasting work by signing up for our annual hurricane subscription package today.