In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued its annual hurricane forecast. It suggested that this year’s hurricane season, spanning from early June through November, would again be an active one.
Last season, was an unmitigated disaster, producing 10 hurricanes that visited more than $280 billion of damage on the Atlantic Basin. The two most infamous storms, Harvey and Maria, devastated Texas and Puerto Rico respectively. Puerto Rico alone may have suffered a death toll as high as 4,600; the island still has not fully recovered.
Earth’s climate is a tricky and subtle mistress. But this year, NOAA may have got it wrong. Not to jinx it, but it looks like we may be in for a surprisingly calm hurricane season.
Here is everything you’ll want to know if you’re planning to visit Florida, the Caribbean, or the Gulf of Mexico in the next six months.
Why this year might not be so bad
Basically, it all has to do with water temperature.
Most hurricanes begin their lives in Africa — particularly in Northeastern Africa where winds blowing through mountainous regions create pockets of low pressure. These systems are then blown across the Sahara Desert until they reach the Atlantic.
Warm water and a low pressure fronts form thunderstorms over the ocean. As these evolve, they begin to spin due to the Earth’s rotation. Plummeting air pressure in the middle of the growing system creates an ‘eye’. The eye functions as a sort of vacuum, sucking warm air and moisture in toward the center, where they rise, forming enormous cloud walls.
In so many words, warm water is like breast milk for baby hurricanes. The warmer the Atlantic becomes and the deeper down that warm layer extends, the more hurricanes will tend to form, the larger they will grow, and the longer they will sustain themselves.
But this year, the Atlantic is surprisingly cool.
In March, water temperatures were on par with last season. But since then — nothing. The expected warming has not come to pass. In fact, the Atlantic is about 3° F cooler than it was this time last year. That may not sound like much, but it’s the coldest the water has been in mid-June since 1982.
But isn’t the Earth getting warmer?
Yes, it is. April 2018 was the third-warmest April on record and May 2018 was the fourth-warmest May.
In 1982, the world temperature was 0.13° C above the long-term average; in 2017, it was 0.9° C. That may seem minuscule, but it’s actually really bad.
The change in average global temperatures between the middle of Reagan’s first term and the beginning of Trump’s is well captured in these two NASA infographics:
The progression isn’t always uniform, and it isn’t always predictable, but the overall trend is startlingly clear. If the cool water in the Atlantic stays that way, we should think of it as a reprieve, not a reversal of fortunes.
Where to go in the Caribbean in 2018
As noted, last year was not kind to the Caribbean and its pearl necklace of restful island paradises.
The Virgin Islands, for instance, were ravaged by two Category 5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, in the span of two weeks. Recovery there remains a work in progress to some degree.
But, actually, there’s a lot of optimism about tropical tourism rebounding this year. Not every island in the region was hit hard by storms last autumn, and even those that were have been working hard to rebuild. By traveling, you can stand with the nations and dependencies that were dealt a blow by mother nature last year. Your money and company is always welcome.
Puerto Rico in particular could use your dollars right now. Although the island has undoubtedly been changed by Hurricane Maria, some resorts are open for business and others are taking reservations for later in the year. Check here to read updates and recommendations from the Puerto Rican tourism authority.
You should read Condé Nast’s guide to which Caribbean hotels are open if you’re looking to travel a little farther afield. You might just find someplace alluring to take advantage of this (hopefully) tame hurricane season.
A word of caution
As we all know, meteorology is a finicky business. It can be difficult to predict what the weather will be like this afternoon, let alone between August and October — the peak months of hurricane season. There’s still time for water temperatures in the Atlantic to rise closer to typical levels, although experts say that window is closing.
Even if temperatures stay on the chilly side, that will not mean no more hurricanes; just fewer and less severe ones.
We should also remember that a storm need not be a hurricane to inflict terrible suffering. Subtropical Storm Alberto kicked off the season on an ominous note in late May, causing $50 million in damage and killing 12 people in Cuba and the US.
You should always keep an eye on the weather during hurricane season. It’s so much better to prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised.