Hurricane Season doesn't officially start until June 1, but don't tell that to Tropical Storm Alberto. Alberto formed Saturday afternoon off the Coast of South Carolina. Today, he's a moderate tropical storm heading northeast. And for every surfer from Folly Beach to Hampton Beach, it's an early gift.
But let's talk more traditional hurricanes and where they come from. They call it the "Horse Latitudes" -- the area 30 to 35 degrees north and south of the equator known for a lack of wind. The Sahara Desert lays in this region and in the summer, it gets so hot that as air rises, it creates its own East African jet. This creates massive columns of warm air that stretch toward the heavens. When these approach the Atlantic Ocean, they are met with wet air... and suddenly they are a tropical wave. Then it's on.
Hurricane swells can get good -- like hand in the face, weight on the tail, stalling for all your worth to get spit out on the shoulder good. But more often, wind shear, swell decay, onshores, and closeouts will find a way to mar the waves we're all waiting for.
No time of year is as talked about on the East Coast as tropical season. Each summer, everyone on the Atlantic from sandy little groms watching surf flicks on the bean bag at the local surf shop to leather-skinned soulsters get all mystical when they talk about hurricane swells. Those impressionable little kids have youthful enthusiasm to blame. But the old guys, well they should know by now -- hurricanes don't always work out.
I'd go so far as to say that a hearty Nor'easter (of which the East Coast had none this year) or a passing cold front/south swell usually get better than most hurricane swells. But no matter how much cynicism you stack against it, those one or two magic sessions from hurricanes with real names -- the ones that you've been tracking for three weeks, are the ones you remember.
The preseason hurricane predictions from Colorado State University and the National Hurricane Center are out. And they don't look good. The guys in the Rocky Mountains are calling for ten named storms, 6.5 hurricanes and two major hurricanes. That's considerably less than an average year.
"This past winter, we had strong winds over the Main Development Region (MDR) for hurricanes -- from 10 to 20 degrees north, between Central America and the coast of Africa, including the Caribbean. About 85 percent of all major hurricanes originate in this area, and the warmer these waters are, the better the chance of getting major hurricanes," saysDr. Jeff Masters, a tropical weather blogger and meteorologist for Wunderground.com.
Despite the continental U.S. experiencing it's warmest ever winter (thanks to La Nina) the waters in the main development region are actually very cool.
"Also, there is at least a one in three chance we will get an El Nino event this fall, which would bring high levels of hurricane-unfriendly wind shear to the tropical Atlantic," says Masters. He doesn't mean to pile on the bad news. He's a scientist, not a surfer, but he does have plenty of experience with tropical weather.
"I remember flying at night into Category 1 Hurricane Bonnie in the Gulf of Mexico in 1986, and being impressed with how high up the swells from the storm reached on the Gulf of Mexico oil rigs we flew past. I wouldn't want to be caught on an oil rig in a hurricane!"
The shift from La Nina to El Nino won't greatly affect weather on the East Coast from now to October, but we won't see that period of slack winds in the tropics that allow storms to form. So we can expect less hurricanes. But, and this is a big but, a hurricane that goes into the Gulf does nothing for the Northeast. A storm that stays in the North Atlantic doesn't do anyone any good. Storms have to take the right tracks. If you get nine tropical storms that all track just off the East Coast, it's a far better season than 25 hurricanes that don't come anywhere near our swell windows.
"There is some new research showing that in El Nino years, storms tend to re-curve out to sea and miss the U.S. more often than during La Nina years. It is still too early to tell if this might be the case this year, though," states Masters.
I don't want to be guilty of hurricane hype, but that sounds more favorable than the vagueness of an "active season." And even in slow years, those behemoths can still wind up and pack a major punch.
"This year is the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, one of only three Category 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the U.S. Andrew's $45 billion price tag is second only to Hurricane Katrina's $106 billion. The 1992 hurricane season had just seven named storms, four hurricanes, and one major hurricane. This is well below the average season of 11, six, and two of such storms, respectively. You have to be ready for the 'Big One' regardless of whether or not pre-season forecasts predict a relatively inactive season," Masters reminds us.
Now obviously, no one is rooting for any landfalling hurricanes, but storms that stay out to sea for extended periods are another thing to consider. One Cat 4 that spins for three weeks could bring waves from Barbados to Cape Breton.
Alberto is looking very beuno for a nice shot of three to four-foot swell in the Mid-Atlantic. Don't count on it ever reaching hurricane status. Overall, it's best to keep your hopes and dreams of falling pressure and groundswell in check this summer. I'm not going to tell you to order a step-up from your shaper for hurricane season. But maybe considering the El Nino, we could be in for some juicy north swells come October, in which case you might want to start thinking about a 6'4 with a drawn-in tail...