CSU researchers predict less active 2019 hurricane season

Emily Girschick

While it may not affect those in Colorado, Colorado State University researchers are actively looking into the coming hurricane season.

In their annual hurricane forecast, CSU researchers have predicted a less active upcoming hurricane season for the Atlantic. According to the published forecast, 13 named storms and five hurricanes, two being major (category 3, 4, or 5) are predicted. The average number of hurricanes is 6.4, with 2.7 of them being major.

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The current forecast is preliminary and an expectation of what this year’s hurricane season will look like. The team responsible for the forecast is headed by Phil Klotzbach and includes Michael Bell, an associate professor on the CSU Tropical Meteorology Project, and graduate research assistant and Ph.D. student Jhordanne Jones.

“While we can predict the overall level of hurricane activity over the whole season with some skill, our forecast cannot be used to predict the location or intensity of individual storms,” Bell wrote in an email to The Collegian.

The prediction is the result of a combination of three models: a statistical model that accounts for oceanic and atmospheric predictors, an analog model that compares the current conditions to historical hurricane seasons and a dynamic model which is a combination of a numerical method and the statistical model.

As the hurricane season approaches and reaches its peak, the forecast will be updated.

“We update the forecast again at the beginning of the hurricane season in early June, and update again in July and early August,” Bell wrote. “We also do two-week forecasts of hurricane activity during the most active part of the season.”

There are two main environmental factors that make hurricane seasons more or less active. These factors are the El Niño event in the Pacific and the surface temperatures of the Atlantic. The weaker the El Niño event and the cooler the ocean surface temperatures, the less likely a hurricane season is to be active.

“Current conditions show a very weak El Niño event … but we also have fairly cool Atlantic sea surface temperatures, which are also not favorable for hurricane activity,” Jones said. “As El Niño forecasting continues, the weak El Niño event will either continue or develop into a stronger El Niño event, and so we’ve maintained that there will be low hurricane activity this season”.

The annual hurricane forecast is presented by Klotzbach at the National Hurricane Conference every year in April, which is part of how the forecast is distributed. Although this hurricane season is predicted to be calmer, residents of hurricane-prone areas should still prepare for the season adequately. 

“It might be an inactive season, but we always tell people that they should prepare as if there might be an active season because it only takes one storm to hit you (in) order for everything to be turned upside down,” Jones said.

As for Colorado being landlocked, this proves to be no difficulty for researchers, and might even help them. Most of the data used for research is obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the European Center for Medium-range Weather Forecasting. Data is collected from radars, satellites and NOAA’s Hurricane Hunters where planes are sent directly into storms. This information is put into the aforementioned models.

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“Being in Fort Collins does not make it difficult to do hurricane research, and has some advantages due to our proximity to the National Center for Atmospheric Research and (NOAA) facilities in Boulder,” Bell wrote. “Another advantage was articulated well by (professor) Bill Gray, who started the CSU hurricane forecasts, said that, ‘Storm surge can’t get you at 5,000 feet’”.

Gray started the annual CSU hurricane forecast and was a vital part of its continued success until his death in 2016. His original research is still used today and is part of the annual forecast. The forecast is a combination of years of previous research.

“A lot of this research is based on research that Dr. William Gray and Dr. Phil Klotzbach did way back when. Dr. William Gray’s research started in 1984 and that is also when our forecasts started,” Jones said. “It is a massive team effort and there have been a lot of students who also contribute to this effort over the years, so this is really a multi-year research effort.”

Emily Girschick can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @EGirschick