The last thing anyone wants to deal with right now is severe weather, but here we are. The first tropical storm of the year is likely to form this weekend, two weeks ahead of Atlantic hurricane season’s official start date.
A disturbance swirling off the coast of Florida has an 80 percent of turning into a tropical or subtropical storm on Saturday. If it does, it would be named Tropical Storm Arthur and would mark the sixth year in a row that Atlantic hurricane started early.
Whether it officially gets named or not, the developing storm is set to make a mess of things in South Florida and places further north as it moves up the coast. Right now, the system is organizing between the Florida Keys and Cuba. Waters there are a balmy 82 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s more than enough heat to help fuel could-be Tropical Storm Arthur’s development. Those ocean temperatures are roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit above normal for this time of year, one of the hallmarks of climate change.
The storm could end up being subtropical, a term used to describe a system that spins like a hurricane but borrows characteristics from its extratropical brethren. That includes having a cold core as opposed to the warm one typical of hurricane and tropical storms.
Regardless of its classification, the system is expected to meander northward and lash the Florida Keys with “heavy rainfall” as well as gusty winds, according to the National Hurricane Center. Parts of mainland Florida as well as the Bahamas could also be hit with tropical storm-force winds over the weekend. The NHC plans to keep an eye on the storm and could dispatch Hurricane Hunter aircraft over the weekend if necessary.
While it’s not likely to be a blockbuster storm in terms of winds or rain, it will still be the first test of how hurricane season will go with the coronavirus layered on top. This year’s hurricane season is expected to be more active than usual.
With the odds in favor of tropical storm formation, 2020 would mark the sixth year in a row of hurricane season starting early. The official first day of Atlantic hurricane season is June 1, but the tropics usually take longer than that to get rolling. The average date for the first tropical storm is July 9.
But since 2015, the Atlantic has gotten its ass in gear early. Even within the run of early season storms, there have been some real freaks. There was 2016's Hurricane Alex, which formed in January (January!) and made landfall in the Azores as a tropical storm after traversing the Atlantic. That was the second-earliest landfalling Atlantic storm ever recorded.
Then there was May 2018, when Subtropical Storm Alberto formed over the Gulf of Mexico and wreaked havoc in Cuba and the U.S. Southeast. It only gained tropical characteristics over land (not normal) and proceeded to make a second “landfall” on Lake Michigan after swirling through the Midwest (extremely not normal). That’s basically the only tropical system to ever make a Lake Michigan landfall.
Rising ocean heat is one of the many factors influencing hurricane season. A study published earlier this month, for example, found more hurricanes are forming in the Atlantic over the past 30 or so years. The causes aren’t just tied to climate change, though, but also a drop in air pollution. Without the extra particles that can help clouds form, sunny skies have helped warm waters up and made them conducive to tropical storms and hurricanes.
If Tropical Storm Arthur does indeed form, it would mark the most consecutive years in a row with a pre-season Atlantic storm. So even if it doesn’t follow the freaky tendencies of Alex and Alberto, it’s still got a weird record all to itself.