The 2014 hurricane season so far has turned out to be just as quiet as predicted, but it isn’t over yet.
“The most important thing is we’re in the peak of the hurricane season,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center.
Although the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, statistically the peak of the activity is Sept. 10, and a heightened chance of storms extends through the rest of this month and into October. A reminder of the potential dangers that can brew in the Gulf was present on Saturday, although experts said the low-pressure system that moved off the shores of Florida into the water wasn’t expected to develop into anything serious.
All summer the hurricane season has shown very little to worry about with just five named storms, only one of which took a glancing blow at the East Coast, while a tropical storm hit Mexico and the remaining two storms curved out to sea. The fifth still is developing in the Atlantic Ocean but is expected to stay away from land.
“We predicted a below-normal season, and it looks like it’s going to be a lower than normal season,” Bell said. The earlier forecasts included the possibility of an El Niño weather pattern forming — which typically reduces the chances of storms because of the extra wind shear the weather pattern produces. But the expected El Niño hasn’t developed yet.
Instead, other weather factors combined to help suppress storm development.
These factors include strong wind shear forces out at sea, a lower Atlantic Ocean sea surface temperature and a suppressed African monsoon season. This has meant there have been fewer weather systems coming off the African coast, where many tropical storms originate.
The few storms that have developed off the coast have run into a hostile environment as they head west, Bell said, as wind shear and a pattern of sinking air has halted the evolution of cloudy weather systems into anything more significant.
Think of it this way: When you walk outside and it’s hot and muggy but there isn’t a cloud in the sky, that indicates air at higher elevations is sinking and the atmosphere is fairly stable. When it’s hot and muggy out and clouds start to form, that means the moisture in the air is able to rise and has the potential to form thunderclouds. That’s the same concept of what is going on out in the Atlantic Ocean this summer on a larger scale, and these conditions have stuck around.
“Once patterns lock in over the tropical Atlantic, they seem to lock in throughout the summer and fall,” Bell said.
However, the possibilities of a storm forming in either in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico are still very real, said Ken Graham, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Slidell.
“These are the seasons that sometimes scare me the most because people do tend to get relaxed,” Graham said.
September is the time of year when it becomes more likely for storms to form up quickly in the Gulf of Mexico and surprise coastal residents who are used to waiting to see what happens with storms as they make their way across the ocean.
“They (Gulf of Mexico storms) can reach us in a couple days,” Graham said, so it’s important that people stay prepared.
For example, Hurricane Audrey in 1957 was a tropical depression less than 72 hours before making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in southwest Louisiana, causing widespread damage and at least 500 deaths, according to NOAA information.
Hurricane Camille in 1969 also spun up in the Caribbean and was a mere tropical storm just 80 hours before it made landfall in Mississippi near the border with Louisiana as a Category 5 hurricane, Graham said.
“It’s peak of the season. It’s not the time to think we’re out of the woods. Things can happen very quickly,” Graham said. “It only takes one to ruin your day.”
Even as October rolls around, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast can’t sit back and relax.
“The first-ever documented hurricane was from a Spanish ship (at the mouth of the Mississippi River) on Oct. 23, 1527,” Graham said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.