By Tim O’Meilia
South Florida whistled past the hurricane graveyard last summer and nary a storm howled in return. Only three hurricanes formed last year and none sent anyone scurrying to Home Depot for plywood.
Don’t expect to sneak by again this year, said National Hurricane Center forecaster
Chris Landsea, who said the eastern Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico
are in the midst of a 25- to 30-year uptick in storms that began in 1995.
“Do not expect things to stay quiet for the next five years,” he said.
But Landsea isn’t ready to make those fashionable predictions of how many storms we will worry over or where the cone of destruction, er, probability, will take aim.
“It’s too early. Those predictions aren’t worth the ink on the paper,” said Landsea, who spoke in March at the annual lecture series sponsored by the Community Affairs Advisory Board of the town of South Palm Beach. Wait until May, or better yet, August for more accurate assessments, he said.
It mostly depends on how fast el Niño weakens in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Landsea says it’s too soon to say. El Niño is a warming of the waters off Ecuador and Peru. The warmer the Pacific, the stronger the wind shear to chop off the heads of developing storms, as happened in 2009. It’s a climatic domino effect.
El Niño made 2009 a one-year wonder. The increase of storms in the past decade is part of a multi-decade cycle last seen in the late 1920s through the early 1950s and not the result of global warming, as some scientists have suggested.
Landsea, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration until last year, is one of the authors of a study published in February that included scientists who said global warming was the cause of the increase in hurricanes.
“Hurricanes are the poster child of global warming, as Al Gore sees it,” Landsea said. “But our computer models show that there will be fewer tropical storms and hurricanes by the end of the century because of global warming — fewer but slightly stronger.”
By the numbers, the number of storms will drop by 6 percent to 34 percent by 2100. But the intensity of those that survive will increase by 2 percent to 11 percent, and there may be twice as many Category 4 and 5 storms as now.
The reason: Global warming will increase the ocean temperature, making stronger storms, but it also will cause more wind shear, decapitating all but the most beefy hurricanes.
“The trouble is, there are lots more people in hurricanes’ way than there used to be,” Landsea said. “Society is making storm damage higher, not global warming.”
Hurricane Katrina, a strong Category 3 storm when it struck New Orleans in 2005, caused $81 billion in damage. In contrast, the 1926 Category 4/5 storm that struck South Florida would cause $140 billion to $157 billion in damage if it hit today, adjusted for inflation and for the influx of population.
What’s that mean for today’s South Palm Beach condo dwellers? “You’re on a barrier island. The first floor of condos could easily get flooded. Power could be out for five days. If you get the word to evacuate, do it,” Landsea said.
“We’re fortunate we can see them coming.”