Hurricane season forecast downgrade still requires vigilance

Published 7:48 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

When forecasters downgraded the prediction for the Atlantic hurricane season two weeks ago, many Beaufort County residents likely breathed a sigh of relief. But until the season is over, North Carolina residents don’t need to let their guard down.

“So far, this season has been very quiet and that’s owed in large part to the waters out in the open tropical Atlantic have been a bit cooler than normal. … A few degrees of water temperature makes a huge difference,” said Carl Barnes, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Newport/Morehead City. “Even though the most recent forecast is now trending to a below-normal season, (we ) just stress that it can only take one.”

On Aug. 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a revised forecast: a total of nine to 13 storms, of which four to seven will become hurricanes and, of those, zero to two storms will become major hurricanes. In May, however, the outlook was much different — a “near- or above-normal season” with 10 to 16 named storms; five to nine of which could become hurricanes, and, of those, one to four major hurricanes.

According to Barnes, El Nino is partially responsible for the downgrade, as it is for the above-average precipitation eastern North Carolina has seen this summer, and will likely return again in September.

“The cause of this, it’s actually all related, at least indirectly related, to the strengthening El Nino pattern in the Pacific,” Barnes said.

El Nino tends to cause above-normal precipitation in the southeast; its wind variance also serves to prevent tropical storm formation.

“Those are not all unrelated,” Barnes said. “But even though it’s trending lower, and we’ve had a quiet season so far, people certainly shouldn’t let their guard down.”

It’s a sentiment with which Chris Newkirk, Beaufort County’s chief of fire/emergency services, agrees.

“It is good news that we’ve had some of that shift in the forecast, but that does not mean that we drop our defenses totally,” Newkirk said. “Whenever we look at models like that, it does kind of ramp us up or tame us down in our planning, but we also know that they’re just models.

They have been correct in the past, and they’ve been wrong. It’s not a 100-percent guarantee; it’s just guesstimates. It’s just theory until you’re proven right.”

Newkirk said regardless of what the forecast may be, the storms that do the most damage in eastern North Carolina aren’t major hurricanes.

“There are so many variables that make a storm significant for us in Beaufort County,” Newkirk said. “It’s not the winds that cause the damage. Some of our most significant storms, damage-wise, were low-grade hurricanes, but they packed a punch on rain and flooding. … We have taught people to grade the severity of a storm on the wind, that’s the first criteria when you’re grading — yes, the winds are important, but it’s water that’s what kills, that does the most damage.”

That’s why Beaufort County residents need to remain prepared for a storm: though Alberto, Beryl, Chris and Debby have come and gone this season, five to nine predicted storms remain for the season.

“The climate, in general, is not a bad as we thought it would be, but it does not mean we’re out of the woods,” Newkirk said. “We’ve still got months of hurricane season left. We’re going into what has historically been our most active part of the season.”