Super-charged Atlantic hurricane season poised for intense activity

A volatile hurricane season is predicted to unfold this year over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, with peak season churning out storms at a fast and furious pace.

Saturday, June 1 marks the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season, and AccuWeather's team of long-range forecasters have been sounding the alarm bells for months, warning that this season could be one for the record books.

"The 2024 Atlantic hurricane season is forecast to feature well above the historical average number of tropical storms, hurricanes, major hurricanes and direct U.S. impacts," AccuWeather Lead Hurricane Forecaster Alex DaSilva said. This echoes the early warning AccuWeather issued in late February about the potential for a surge in tropical activity.

Makatla Ritchter (L) and her mother, Keiphra Line wade through flood waters after having to evacuate their home when the flood waters from Hurricane Idalia inundated it on August 30, 2023, in Tarpon Springs, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Last hurricane season featured 19 named storms, but there were only four direct U.S. impacts. Hurricane Idalia was the storm of the year, which slammed into Florida as a powerful Category 3 hurricane in late August. Additionally, Tropical Storm Harold drenched southern Texas, and Tropical Storm Ophelia made landfall in North Carolina. Lee also swiped the New England coast as a tropical rainstorm before making landfall in Nova Scotia, Canada.

All signs continue to point toward the upcoming season being worse than the last, with the potential for the 2024 Atlantic hurricane season to rank as one of the most active in history.

Warm water is fuel for tropical systems, and there will be plenty of warm water for fledgling systems to tap into and strengthen.

"Sea-surface temperatures are well above historical average across much of the Atlantic basin, especially across the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and the Main Development Region [for hurricanes]," DaSilva explained.

Not only will this promote frequent development, but it will increase the potential for systems to undergo rapid intensification, a phenomenon that has occurred in recent years with historic hurricanes.

In 2020, Hurricane Laura was in the Gulf of Mexico and was making a beeline toward southwestern Louisiana. In just 24 hours, it rapidly intensified from a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 85 mph to a menacing Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph -- 7 mph shy of Category 5 status.

Unusually warm water could also help to spawn tropical systems in November when the Atlantic hurricane season is winding down.

This GOES-16 GeoColor satellite image taken Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, at 4:50 p.m. EDT., and provided by NOAA, shows Hurricane Laura over the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA via AP)

The other major factor in AccuWeather's Atlantic hurricane forecast is hitched to the Pacific Ocean.

Water near the equator of the eastern Pacific is in the process of quickly flipping from El Niño, when temperatures in this area are higher than historical averages, to La Niña, when temperatures in this zone are lower than long-term normals. This swift transition may have significant implications across the Atlantic Ocean.

La Niña results in less disruptive winds, known as wind shear, over most of the Atlantic basin.

"It can be helpful to visualize a stack of pancakes," DaSilva explained. When there is a high amount of wind shear, the top of a tropical system can be pushed and tilted away from its base, causing it to become lopsided. If a mature hurricane is in place, it may weaken but will not necessarily dissipate. "A tall, neat stack is what a tropical system wants to be, but wind shear can cause some pancakes to be displaced and the stack could fall over," said DaSilva.

The faster the transition to La Niña occurs, the more active the hurricane season is likely to be.

La Niña was present during the 2020, 2021 and 2022 Atlantic hurricane seasons, all of which featured near or well above the historical average of 14 named storms. The 2020 season is tied with the historic 2005 season for the highest number of named storms, with 30.

AccuWeather meteorologists are forecasting 20-25 named storms across the Atlantic basin in 2024, including 8-12 hurricanes, four to seven major hurricanes and four to six direct U.S. impacts. This is all above the 30-year historical average of 14 named storms, seven hurricanes, three major hurricanes and four direct U.S. impacts.

With so many factors that could bolster development, there is the potential that there could be even more than 25 named storms in 2024.

"There is a 10-15% chance of 30 or more named storms this year," DaSilva said.

In addition to the number of storms and hurricanes, AccuWeather is predicting an Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) of 175-225, above the historical average of 123.

ACE measures the intensity and longevity of tropical systems throughout the year, making it a reliable way to quantify the true strength of a hurricane season. A powerful, long-lived hurricane will generate a large amount of ACE, while a short-lived tropical storm will only generate a small amount of ACE.

"The Texas coast, Florida Panhandle, South Florida and the Carolinas are at a higher-than-average risk of direct impacts this season," DaSilva said.

While these four areas are at an elevated risk for a direct strike from a tropical system, residents near other coastal locations should remain vigilant.

"All residents and interests along the U.S. coast, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, should have a hurricane plan in place and always be fully prepared for a direct impact.," DaSilva added.

One tool meteorologists use to create long-range forecasts is analyzing analog years, or past years when the weather patterns were similar to current conditions.

An analog year for this season is 2016 -- a year when Hurricane Matthew barreled over Hispaniola and eastern Cuba before taking a swipe at Florida's Atlantic coast. The Category 5 hurricane was the most powerful storm of that season, which took place during La Niña, similar to what is predicted to happen this year.

With AccuWeather experts predicting 20-25 named storms, meteorologists could run out of names to use for tropical storms and hurricanes.

Although the alphabet has 26 letters, Q, U, X, Y and Z are skipped, leaving 21 names. So what happens when we run out?

The Greek alphabet was used in the past to name storms, starting with Alpha, but that rule was changed by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 2021.

"The use of the Greek alphabet was not expected to be frequent enough to warrant any change in the existing naming procedure," the WMO said on its website. "However, after the record-breaking 2020 season, the WMO Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee annual session in 2021 decided to end the use of the Greek alphabet and instead established two lists of supplemental tropical cyclone names, one for the Atlantic, one for the Pacific."

A pregnant woman is carried out of an area flooded by water brought by Hurricane Eta in Planeta, Honduras, on Nov. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Delmer Martinez, File)

The supplemental list of names is also in alphabetical order, starting with the name Adria.

If there are at least 22 named storms in the Atlantic this season, 2024 will be the first time the supplemental list is used.

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