Tracking the tropics: The 2016 Hurricane season

Tracking the tropics: The 2016 Hurricane season

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF)  Tropical depressions, tropical storms and hurricanes - those are three words that any coastal community does not want to hear, but those are the exact three words that our coastal community and those along the Grand Strand may be hearing a lot of this year.

With a weakening El Niño transitioning into a La Niña, the ingredients needed for tropical storms or hurricanes to form will likely become more favorable. The presence of an El Niño during hurricane season normally cuts down on tropical activity thanks to warmer Pacific waters and wind shear coming from the Pacific. The presence of a la Niña doesn't create more storms, but allows more storms to strengthen thanks to a cooler Pacific water temperatures and less wind shear.

We all know that there was a very strong El Niño the last several months. Some of you may remember it being dubbed the "Godzilla El Niño." The winter forecast was for an active and wet winter.  So how did that pan out? Stephen Pfaff, the warning coordination meteorologist at the NWS in Wilmington, said the way we forecasted the El Niño over the winter months was very accurate.

 "Last fall we were looking at an intense El Niño forming - one that rivaled 1997/1998. And when you look at the actual numbers across the Pacific that did occur and also some of the impacts that we were expecting across the Southeast from it did occur as well," Pfaff said. "We had periods of river flooding; we had a lot of rain fall during the wintertime. So that precipitation forecast worked out as advertised."

Now one thing we can do is use the data and numbers from the past six months and use it as a guidance towards the next six months. Specifically, using it towards hurricane season.
Pfaff says that trends build confidence, and the trends have been calling for a weakening El Niño, but how does a weakening El Niño correlate to hurricane season? Pfaff explains, "It runs the whole gamut we've seen below normal activity, we've seen above normal activity and near normal activity. But when you look at the big picture, what we typically see is certainly an increase in hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin."

Okay, so a more active season may be upon us, according to the numbers. So where will the storms hit? When will the storms hit? How strong will they be?  All very legitimate questions, but all questions that are very difficult to answer. Forecasting a hurricane is very difficult even when it's a week out from making landfall, let alone forecasting tropical storms or hurricanes before the season has even started. One thing that we can do is know our area and know how a tropical system may impact our area. Cameron Self, a tropical meteorologist that works for StormGEO, shared his thoughts on the weakening El Niño: "Most of our model guidance is actually saying that a La Niña is going to be developing by August September and October. That is actually favorable for development across the Atlantic basin."

Self has also done research on how frequently storms affect South Carolina, and it's information you need to know. "It's no mystery that North Carolina gets more hurricanes than South Carolina," Self said. "People in North Carolina and South Carolina have probably noticed this. If you limited to high and Cat. Three storms and higher, South Carolina has actually seen more of those storms."

This doesn't mean that we are definitely going to see a major land-falling hurricane this year, but it does mean we have to pay a little bit more attention. Pfaff says that South Carolina is impacted by a major hurricane once every 18 years, on average. The last major hurricane we had was Hurricane Hugo in 1989 - 27 years ago.

Pfaff has some concerns based on that fact. "We're beyond due with respect to a land-falling major hurricane in the Carolinas," he said.

Horry County Emergency Manager Randy Webster said the county's main goal as a storm approaches is to get information out to the public. Most of the people that now live here have never experienced a tropical system. The information will be put out, but it's up to the community to listen and prepare, especially with the growth that we've seen recently.

Webster explained, "All of this development has happened. One storm could wipe a lot of that out.  After a major disaster like that there will be a new normal. And we don't know what, but it'll be up to the community to come together to make that happen."

Webster also says that over-preparing is never a bad idea. "It's easy to sit here and say South Carolina as a whole and Horry County are the most prepared states on the coast for hurricane activity," he said.

Of course there is the unthinkable that may happen, but not being prepared is a sure way to cause the loss of lives and damage to property to be much more extensive. The last major hurricane that affected Horry County was Hugo, and before that, hurricane Hazel in 1954, but the impacts of a major hurricane would be much different now.

Self explained: "You could imagine if you had the type of development along the Grand Strand in the 50s that you do now - that just would've been a tremendous disaster, a catastrophe!"

We can break down the numbers that other companies and universities put out on how many systems may form this season, but in reality, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you are prepared, and one reason that you always need to be prepared is that it only takes one storm.

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