A tropical depression and tropical storm are currently blowing through the Atlantic. They are creating the potential for one hell of a rare event by Tuesday: two storms in the Gulf of Mexico at the same time. Not only would this be historic weather-wise; it would stretch disaster response resources even more thin than usual, creating a terrifying situation for Gulf Coast communities.
Right now, Tropical Storm Laura and Tropical Depression 14 are swirling in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico respectively. The former is approaching the northern Caribbean island of Barbuda and could head toward Puerto Rico this weekend. Both islands were battered by Hurricane Maria and while Laura won’t be anywhere near as strong, it still poses a risk. Meanwhile Tropical Depression 14 is expected to become Tropical Storm Marco later today and churn toward the Yucatan Peninsula this weekend.
Both storms will set records for the earliest “L” and “M” storms, respectively, continuing the breakneck pace of Atlantic hurricane season. They’ll also both likely reach hurricane status by late this weekend or early next week as they enter the heart of the Gulf of Mexico where abnormally warm waters (thanks climate change) will provide the heat they need to ramp up. This is super rare with 1933 being the only other time on record two hurricanes have occupied the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, as the history weather map below shows.
As terrifying as that prospect is, there’s a silver lining to this rare occurrence that might keep each storm in check. Meet the Fujiwhara effect. This phenomenon occurs when two cyclones are within about 900 miles of each other. Because of the force of the winds and rain, the two storms rotate around a shared center before going their own way. Wild and very on-brand for 2020, yes. But it also means the two storms sort of fight each other.
As a result, they weaken, said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with Yale Climate Connections. One or both may weaken to the point of dissipation. On even rarer occasions, they may form one storm—but this wouldn’t be some sort of megastorm. It would maintain the same force of the storms when they were separate. The Fujiwhara effect can reduce the impact of the storms involved because they’re so busy whipping and lashing at each other that coastal communities won’t get as much of it.
“In general, it’s a good thing for people on the ground,” Masters said. “At least one of the storms is going to weaken as a result of it, and maybe both of them will.”
This phenomenon is much more common in the Pacific Ocean because that body of water sees a higher number of storms than the Atlantic. However, this Atlantic hurricane season continues to surprise us. The last time this happened in the Atlantic was in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma ate Tropical Storm Alpha after ramming into Florida.
Both of the current tropical cyclones are expected to make U.S. landfall early next week, according to the latest National Hurricane Center forecast. If that happens, it would be another historic event. Masters said he’s more worried about Tropical Storm Laura, which has the potential to cause some more serious damage.
With the pandemic in full rage, the South doesn’t need another disaster to come knocking. Unfortunately, hurricane season hasn’t even reached its peak yet, and the forecast for the next few weeks looks very active. Buckle up, y’all.
Correction, 8/22/20, 9:00 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that Tropical Storm Marco is expected, not Kyle, which already formed. There’s been too many storms this year.