2004 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook
June 11, 2004 - Once again experts around the world are predicting an above normal level of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean this year. This will make seven years in a row for a forecast of above-normal activity . . . and those forecasts have seldom been wrong.
Last year was a sobering reminder that we cannot be complacent about these kinds of storms in Canada as we experienced our worst year for hurricanes since the Great Escuminac Disaster of 1959 when a freakish June tropical cyclone claimed the lives of 35 mariners in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. During a three week period in September 2003, Hurricane Fabian streaked through the Grand Banks and killed three mariners, Tropical Storm Isabel resulted in one traffic fatality as it weakened over Ontario, and Hurricane Juan claimed a total of eight lives as it entered the records books as the most widely destructive Atlantic Canadian hurricane in over 100 years. For a more detailed review of last season, please consult the 2003 season summary.
North Atlantic Ocean
The hurricane season officially runs from June through November when the waters of the Atlantic are warm enough to produce tropical cyclones. For more than a decade the Atlantic’s waters have been warm enough to produce a record number of tropical cyclones and there appears to be little change in sight. Earlier hopes that an El Niño might diminish the number of hurricanes this year were dashed with the latest predictions from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that neutral ENSO conditions (neither El Niño nor La Niña) are expected to run through August-October, the peak months of the hurricane season. As well, upper atmospheric winds--which can be hurricane-inhibitors if they are too strong or in the wrong direction--are predicted to offer little in the way of an obstacle this year.
Once again, the last 10 years have been the busiest of any decade on record for Atlantic tropical storms and hurricanes with an average of 13.7 named storms, 7.7 hurricanes, and 3.3 intense hurricanes. Compare this to long-term seasonal averages (over the period 1951 to 2000) of 10.0, 5.9, and 2.4, respectively. This year the NOAA predicts that there will be 12 to 15 named storms with 6 to 8 becoming hurricanes and 2 to 4 reaching intense-hurricane status. Predictions by other expert centres like Colorado State Universities Tropical Cyclone Lab and the Tropical Storm Risk Initiative in the United Kingdom fall within the same ranges. These predictions are in line with what we have been experiencing over the last decade so we shouldn’t be shocked at these numbers now as we were in the mid 1990s when there was a clear shift in the trend towards more hurricanes.
What Does This Mean for Canada?
The Canadian Hurricane Centre reminds Canadians that anytime there’s a prediction of increased hurricane activity overall in the Atlantic, it means that there’s a greater chance that one or more of these storms will make their way northwards and affect Canada. The importance of awareness in minimizing the risk from hurricanes became quite clear last September when, despite more than two-days notice that Hurricane Juan would make landfall in Nova Scotia, many people did not take the warnings seriously. Generally, the public response to the warnings was lackadaisical at best. As a result, few people were prepared for the record-level winds and storm surge that accompanied the Category-2 storm as it ripped through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, creating Category-3 damage.
Less than five months earlier in May, an undergraduate thesis entitled, “Actual versus perceived risk due to hurricanes in Nova Scotia” was published by Rebecca Hanson (Dept. of Geography, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia). In her thesis Ms. Hanson prophetically noted that Nova Scotians who had previously experienced a hurricane were more likely to expect impacts, although their expectation was that impacts were still low. She noted that rural residents perceived the risk as being higher than their urban counterparts. Perhaps most notable was her conclusions that, “In the event of a major landfalling hurricane, a major concern to emergency measures organizers evidenced in the survey results was the participants’ low awareness of preparedness measures . . . people would not be aware of management plans in effect or actions they should take to prevent damage or injury.”
Ms. Hanson’s thesis conclusions made it clear that Nova Scotians were not going to be ready for a hurricane like Juan. She was right. Why? Discussions with hundreds of residents since the event have revealed a number of factors that led to an unprepared public:
- Topping the list was the fact that Nova Scotia’s population centre was completely unschooled in the threats of a storm of Juan’s magnitude. The province had not seen a category-2 hurricane since Ginny in 1963 and only three in total since the 1800s...with all three landing between Yarmouth and the mouth of Digby Neck. Accordingly, the people of Halifax, and in fact much of Nova Scotia, had no sense of the power of such a hurricane.
- Another significant factor was the general disbelief that Juan was going to track according to the forecasts of the Hurricane Centre. The general pattern for hurricanes in Atlantic Canada is that either they weaken or veer away from land. Juan did neither. However, many people simply didn’t believe the warnings.
- A third key factor was that many people don’t believe that they are personally vulnerable. This fact was captured in Ms. Hanson’s surveys and was demonstrated first-hand during Juan with a number of inappropriate responses to the Environment Canada warnings. In some instances, people even disregarded the warnings and instructions from Nova Scotia’s Emergency Measures Organization. Citizens frolicking by the seashore during the height of the storm showed a lack of respect for the awesome nature of a hurricane and a general lack of awareness of their risks.
- A fourth factor was revealed after the storm when many residents admitted that they felt that Halifax had already experienced a hurricane when Hortense made landfall along the Eastern Shore in 1996. Many Haligonians recalled that it was a “dark and stormy night” in Halifax during Hortense with high winds, intense rain, and an inundating storm surge that caused damage along the Halifax waterfront. With Hortense as their experience of a recent hurricane they believed that the city stood up well under the storm and that they had already experienced the worst that a hurricane could deliver. Hurricane Juan delivered conditions much worse than they expected because it was a stronger storm that made landfall just west of Halifax, bringing the storm’s highest winds (in the eastern eyewall) directly over the city.
Clearly, much work lies ahead in the area of hurricane awareness. The residents of the southeastern United States are much further ahead when it comes to understanding their vulnerability from hurricanes; they know that awareness and preparedness for these storms is the best (and perhaps only) defence.
To help improve awareness of the realistic threat of tropical cyclones, Environment Canada is doing the following this year:
- Completing its multi-year study and releasing a report (September): “A Climatology of Hurricanes for Canada: Improving Our Awareness of the Threat.”
- An online interactive searchable climatology of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic with maps, charts, and reports producible at the user’s discretion. (available soon)
- Managing a study of Halifax’s vulnerability to severe weather, using Hurricane Juan as a case study. The study will be conducted by Ms. Hanson as part of an internship with Environment Canada, in conjunction with her Masters thesis (Dept. of Geography, University of Toronto).
- Collaborating with the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic for some special events in September to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Juan.
- Creating a Hurricane Hazel 50th anniversary Web site as a reminder of our vulnerabilities to hurricanes. (September / October release)
Scientists and researchers from the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) and the National Research Council (NRC) are prepared to continue their study of the nature and structure of mid-latitude hurricanes by flying the Convair 580 into the eye of any tropical cyclone that tracks within striking distance of the coast this Fall.
These two agencies have flown successful data-gathering missions into four tropical cyclones to date: Hurricane Michael (Newfoundland, 2000); Tropical Storm Karen (Nova Scotia, 2001); Tropical Storm Isabel (Ontario, 2003); Hurricane Juan (Nova Scotia, 2003).
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