NOAA Releases 2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was record breaking. There were 30 named storms (a record), 13 hurricanes, six major hurricanes and nine landfalls on the Gulf Coast (also a record). 

Last year saw two storms (Arthur and Bertha) form before the official June 1 start of the season. The season then ended with a pair of major hurricanes in November, Eta and Iota, marking the first time on record of two major storms in November.

And while forecasters with the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) don’t foresee the 2021 season matching last year’s numbers, they do predict another active hurricane season for the Atlantic basin.

In a May 20 press conference, forecasters gave a 60 percent chance for an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season and a 30 percent chance of a near-normal season. They predicted only a 10 percent chance for a below-normal season.

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Unlike other hurricane season outlooks, which predict a specific number of named storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes, NOAA offered a likely range for each category. For 2021, the agency predicted between 13 and 20 named storms (those with wind speeds of 39 mph. or higher), six to 10 hurricanes (with 74 mph. winds or higher) and three to five major hurricanes (with 111 mph. winds and above).

That range matches the new average NOAA has set for the Atlantic hurricane season, which reflects tropical activity from the last 30 years. According to the “new normal,” an average Atlantic hurricane season will have 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 through November 30, although the National Weather Service is already tracking what could become the first named storm of the season 650 miles east-northeast of Bermuda. As of midday May 20, that storm had an 80 percent chance of developing into a tropical cyclone within 48 hours.

If winds increase to 39 mph., it would be named Tropical Storm Ana.

“Now is the time for communities along the coastline as well as inland to get prepared for the dangers that hurricanes can bring,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said as part of NOAA releasing its hurricane season outlook. “The experts at NOAA are poised to deliver life-saving early warnings and forecasts to communities, which will also help minimize the economic impacts of storms.”

NOAA scientists, in part, drew their outlook from the current neutral phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which could shift into La Niña during hurricane season. ENSO refers to winds, water temperatures and surface pressures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which have an effect on storm formation throughout the tropics. La Niña conditions favor tropical storm development in the Atlantic Ocean.

“ENSO-neutral and La Niña support the conditions associated with the ongoing high-activity era,” said Matthew Rosencrans, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “Predicted warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds and an enhanced West African monsoon will likely be factors in this year’s overall activity.”

In preparation for hurricane season, NOAA has upgraded its weather forecasting model, the Global Forecast System (GFS). Besides extending its wave forecasting from 10 days to 16 days, the GFS model now includes Global Positioning Satellite Radio Occultation, which NOAA said will improve the model’s performance. The agency has also upgraded its probabilistic storm surge model (P-Surge), which will extend likely storm surge forecasts from 48 to 60 hours. NOAA will also be deploying a larger fleet of uncrewed systems to gather data from within storm systems. The NOAA Hurricane Hunter airplanes will launch drones into the midst of storms, while “saildrones, hurricane gliders, global drifters and air-deployable technology” will all be used to “track various parts of the life cycle of tropical storms.”

“Although NOAA scientists don’t expect this season to be as busy as last year, it only takes one storm to devastate a community,” said Ben Friedman, acting administrator of NOAA. “The forecasters at the National Hurricane Center are well-prepared with significant upgrades to our computer models, emerging observation techniques and the expertise to deliver the life-saving forecasts that we all depend on during this, and every, hurricane season.”

Besides Ana, other names to be used this hurricane season include Bill, Claudette, Danny, Elsa, Fred, Grace, Henri, Ida, Julian, Kate, Larry, Mindy, Nicholas, Odette, Peter, Rose, Sam, Teresa, Victor and Wanda.