La Nina, Loop Current and other factors put Florida in crosshairs of another active hurricane season

Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The six-month hurricane season begins Wednesday, and outlooks from three respected entities — NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), Colorado State University and AccuWeather, the independent forecasting service — predict above-average activity for the third consecutive year.

Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center said Monday that an area of low pressure left over from the Pacific’s Hurricane Agatha had a 40% chance of developing in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico over the next five days. It could drift into the northwest Caribbean, nearer to Florida, by midweek.

Worse, Florida has a 75% chance of getting hit by a hurricane this year, according to one expert, which is the highest chance of any state in the U.S.

Factor in supply-chain issues that include a highly publicized baby formula shortage, and a lumber shortage that could rob South Floridians of the plywood they need to board up houses and businesses, or the wood they need to rebuild after a storm, and the season will start under an ominous shadow.

But NOAA has some news tools in its toolbox that could help forecasting storms as well as tracking their path and intensity, including a new drone and two lasers.

“Combining them all is exciting to me because one of them is measuring the moisture and temperature, the others can get us some of the winds and how the winds are changing in these important parts of the storm,” said Jason Dunion, director of NOAA’s hurricane field program and a University of Miami researcher.

“It’s almost like the ability to bring them all together really makes it pretty unique coming into this season.”

NOAA also plans to fly a jet near the Cape Verde Islands, a location off Africa’s west coast that experts say is the birthplace of 80% to 85% of major hurricanes.

Still, Floridians must remain vigilant.

AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said his research shows Florida, with its abundance of coastline, has the highest chance of getting hit by a hurricane this year. Louisiana, which has been pounded by four hurricanes the last two years, including three major hurricanes, is second-highest at 56%.

Among regions with the highest chance of getting hit by tropical activity, meaning a Tropical Storm or a hurricane, the top honor stays in Florida.

“The highest probability is going to be over the Florida Panhandle, which is part of that northern Gulf of Mexico area that’s been hammered the last several years,” Kottlowski said. “Statistics are telling us that that’s going to be the case this year again.”

The second-highest region, Kottlowski said, is South Florida, which hasn’t been greatly affected since Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Third is a region of the East Coast from Charleston, South Carolina, to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, or even as far north as Norfolk, Virginia.

One major influence that could work in Florida’s favor is the Bermuda High, a high pressure system that constantly moves east and west, and acts as a steering factor for hurricanes with its surrounding clockwise winds.

In recent years, the Bermuda High has been farther west than usual, which has diverted storms from Florida’s east coast and sent them to Louisiana and the Northern Gulf of Mexico. If the Bermuda High shifts to the east, it allows storms a path to Florida’s east coast.

Regardless of where the storms pass, a few factors suggest Kottlowski and others might be correct in predicting an active hurricane season. This is an active storm period. The most active year in history was 2020, with 30 named storms, and the third-most active year was 2021, with 21 named storms.

Also, this is a La Nina year, meaning water temperatures will be warmer than usual and there’s less wind shear to tear apart storms.

Beyond that, the Loop Current, a warm water current that starts between Mexico’s eastern Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba’s west coast, flows north into the Gulf of Mexico and then southeast to the Florida Straits, is already supplying the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean with abnormally warm water farther north than usual at this time of year. And sometimes, as in the case of Hurricane Ida last year, the water is as warm as 86 degrees, and stays at that temperature up to 500 feet deep. Compare that to water temperatures outside the Loop Current, which is about 78 degrees at 120 feet deep.

Hurricanes use warm water as fuel. If a storm passes over the Loop Current, or an eddy that breaks off of the Loop Current, it sometimes jump-starts the rapid intensification process, meaning wind speeds increase at least 35 mph in a 24-hour period. Rapid intensification turns Category 1 or 2 storms into Category 3, 4 or even 5 monsters.

“For hurricane forecasting, it really is the 800-pound gorilla,” said Nick Shay, ocean sciences professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Scientists such as Hugh Willoughby, distinguished research professor at Florida International University’s Department of Earth and Environment, are checking whether global warming has an influence on the Loop Current or other storm factors.

“Basically the hurricanes are heat engines, they run between the hot ocean surface and the cooler base of the stratosphere,” he said. “What happens as global warming progresses is the ocean gets warmer and the upper atmosphere gets cooler. ... We’re trying to see if there is really a trend that is attributable to global warming rather than chance. The theoretical results show yeah, sure. But we want to know something a little more definite than that.”

Although much of the research using the drones, lasers, and historical data is exciting and ground-breaking, it doesn’t supersede early preparation, which should be going on now, according to experts.

After all, their pioneering work can’t do anything about the ongoing supply chain issues. So they have some advice for South Floridians heading into hurricane season.

“Look at the supplies you need now,” Kottlowski said. “Don’t wait until a storm shows up on the map.”