The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1, but is off to an early start this year. Not only is a storm poised to form off the coast of the Southeast, but the first named storm of the season actually occurred way back in January. Forecasters put the greatest odds on this hurricane season being a near-average one, with smaller chancesMore
The 2016 Atlantic hurricane season wasted no time in getting started as Tropical Storm Colin formed on Sunday, just five days into the season.
The storm, which is not well-formed, looks to bring heavy rains and some storm surge across northern Florida and potentially parts of the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina over the next day or two.
While it’s not unusual to have a storm so early in the season, this year has had more than one: Tropical Storm Bonnie made landfall near Charleston, S.C., on May 29 (not to mention Alex hit way back in January). It is “fairly uncommon” to have two such early storms, hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy, of the Rosenstiel School of Marine Science in Miami, said in an email. Colin is the earliest third storm of a season on record.
The main reason Bonnie and Colin were able to form is because the waters in the Caribbean Sea/Gulf of Mexico region and along the Atlantic coast have been so warm. The heat from the ocean helps fuel the convection that drives tropical cyclones (the generic term for tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons).
Researchers who are studying how climate change might affect future tropical cyclone activity have only just begun to delve into the question of whether warmer ocean waters might help to lengthen the hurricane season by providing fuel for storms for more of the year. Some research suggests that seasons might be getting longer, but climate models have had mixed results.
From research conducted over the past decade, though, scientist think that as the planet warms, the proportion of the strongest storms should increase.
Perhaps the clearest link between warming and hurricanes is the storm surge that can inundate coastlines as storms come ashore. Storm surge is one of the main impacts expected with Colin, with anywhere from 1 to 3 feet expected to wash over low-lying areas from Indian Pass to Florida Bay.
Colin’s other major impact will be rain, which could lead to flash flooding. The National Hurricane Center has forecast 3 to 5 inches of rain through Tuesday across the northern part of Florida, southeastern Georgia, and coastal South Carolina, as well as western Cuba and the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Some isolated areas could see up to 8 inches.
Winds will pick up as the system moves closer to shore in Florida, but Colin, like Bonnie before it, is a “weak and sloppy” system, McNoldy said. That is because wind shear — or changes in wind direction and speed throughout the atmosphere — is making it difficult for the storm to coalesce around a defined center.
“Conditions were marginal for this development, as Colin barely qualifies as a tropical storm (the surface center is not well-defined, and the thunderstorm activity is far removed from the center),” McNoldy said.
Coastal areas in Colin’s path are preparing with warnings out to the public to avoid driving through floodwaters.
Florida has had a string of good luck with storms in recent years: While tropical storms have led to some flooding, it has been more than 10 years since a major hurricane (defined as Category 3 or stronger) has hit the Sunshine State.
Experts don’t expect that streak to last, particularly as the El Niño that helped tamp down hurricane activity last year is waning and transitioning to a La Niña, which tends to bolster storm activity in the Atlantic.
With those factors in mind, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters have predicted that 10 to 16 named storms will form this season, with four to eight becoming hurricanes and one to four of those becoming major ones.
While the early activity this season doesn’t guarantee the season will be on the higher end of those predictions, “it reminds people that it’s hurricane season,” McNoldy said.