Under Way - Arlene to Epsilon: enough, already! - Soundings Online

Under Way - Arlene to Epsilon: enough, already!

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The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was extraordinary in several ways.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was extraordinary in several ways.

For starters, it was the season that just wouldn’t end. Even after the six-month season officially came to a close Nov. 30, weary hurricane forecasters were still issuing advisories for Tropical Storm Epsilon, which formed on the next to the last day of the busiest hurricane season on record.

On Dec. 8, hurricane specialist Lixion Avila began the 37th Epsilon advisory for the National Hurricane Center with these words: “Epsilon is weakening rapidly … This is the last advisory … It is about time.” And with that, the last hurricane of the destructive 2005 Atlantic season petered out about 1,100 miles southwest of the Azores.

By any measure, 2005 will go down in the books as one to remember — or perhaps to forget, depending on your perspective. It was unprecedented in terms of activity and ferocity, and National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield saw history swirling before most of us did.

“Early on, Max Mayfield said this would be a season to tell your grandchildren about, and he was certainly right,” remarked National Weather Service director David L. Johnson. “Since we began naming storms over 50 years ago, this was the first season to exhaust the names that were on the list, and we had to go to the Greek alphabet — uncharted territory.”

The list of 21 names started with Arlene and ended with Wilma, after which the center was forced to move to Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and finally Epsilon.

The historic 2005 season generated plenty of “firsts.” Here are a few:

• Hurricane Katrina was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with damage estimates of at least $80 billion. The previous record holder, Hurricane Andrew, caused about $26.5 billion in 1992 dollars.

• Hurricane Wilma was the strongest tropical storm (882 millibars) ever recorded in the Atlantic basin. And 2005 saw three of the six strongest storms ever (Wilma: first, Rita: fourth, Katrina: sixth).

• With sustained winds of 155 mph, Emily became the strongest hurricane to occur in July.

• There were 26 named storms last year (previous high was 21 in 1933) and 14 hurricanes (12 were spawned in 1969).

• Four major hurricanes struck the United States (the former record was three in 2004).

• And 2005 saw the formation of a trio of Category Five hurricanes (there were two in 1960 and 1961).

Enough, already.

Here’s a question I had. Why was this season so damn busy? For one thing, we’ve been in an active hurricane era since 1995. And we’ve got quite a ways to go before we’re out of the woods. NOAA says this busy period is the result of naturally occurring cycles in the tropical climate patterns near the equator.

But what made 2005 so active? NOAA scientist Dr. Gerry Bell cited three factors that occurred last year in the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico:

• Ocean waters were very warm, 2 to 3 degrees F above normal.

• Wind sheer was very low (hurricanes only form when wind sheer is low).

• Wind patterns coming off Africa were favorable for energizing storms as they moved west across the Atlantic.

“Because we’re 11 years into an active hurricane era, it’s reasonable to expect ongoing high levels of hurricane activity for many years to come,” says Bell, a research meteorologist and hurricane specialist with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “And, importantly, ongoing high levels of hurricane landfalls for the next decade — or perhaps longer.”

We all wish the forecast was better. If there is a glimmer of good news, it comes from William Gray, the longtime hurricane forecaster from the University of Colorado. While Gray predicted 2006 would be another active year in the Atlantic, he and his team didn’t expect as many major landfalling hurricanes in the United States as we’ve had the last two years.

We’re running two hurricane-related stories this month. The first report indicates that the damage total for pleasure boats alone from the 2005 season may top $1 billion, which will be a record. It also foreshadows the boat insurance increases that are certain to follow.

The other dispatch is a gripping account of a 74-year-old sailor who got caught in a powerful nor’easter that had merged with the remnants of Hurricane Wilma. That story begins on Page 20.

The 2006 hurricane season starts June 1. Be safe. Stay vigilant. Watch the forecasts. Pay your insurance and do whatever you can to make sure your boat is as safe as possible. Most of all, protect yourself and your family. There’s an old cliché that’s probably worth repeating here: You can always replace the boat.