Atlantic hurricane season blows away records

Published 3:12 pm Friday, November 28, 2008

The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season, which ends Sunday, appears to have attained Olympian heights, setting at least five weather records in the United States and Cuba.

“It was pretty relentless in a large number of big strikes,” said Georgia Tech atmospheric sciences professor Judith Curry. “We just didn’t have the huge monster where a lot of people lost their lives, but we had a lot of damage, a lot of damage.”

Data on death and damage are still being calculated.

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Three records showed the hurricane season’s relentlessness. Six consecutive named storms — Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike — struck the U.S. mainland, something that had not been seen in recorded history. It’s also the first time a major hurricane, those with winds of at least 111 mph, formed in five consecutive months, July through November. And Bertha spun about for 17 days, making it the longest lived storm in July.

Two records involve storms hitting the same places repeatedly. Rain-heavy Fay was the only storm to hit the same state — Florida — four times, leaving heavy flood damage in its wake. A record three major hurricanes smacked Cuba: Gustav, Ike and Paloma.

Upper air currents helped storms get bigger and focused them into a few places — Cuba and the U.S. Gulf Coast — said Gerry Bell, the top hurricane forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center. Five of the six storms that hit the United States this season struck the Gulf Coast.

And that repeat-tracking of storms to the same place — and with it increased likelihood of landfall — is typical of years when the hurricane season is on overdrive, like this year, Bell said.

This year wasn’t the busiest ever. It merely tied for the fourth most named storms in history with 16. The 2005 season shattered all records with 28 tropical storms and hurricanes.

The 2008 season was busy largely because of the natural cycles of high and low storm activity that last anywhere from 25 to 40 years.

“This one started in 1995. Based on the historical record, we’re right in the middle of an active era,” Bell said.

An average season has 11 named storms, six of which become hurricanes. This year there were eight hurricanes, of which five – Bertha, Gustav, Ike, Omar and Paloma — became major hurricanes.

Three of those — Gustav, Ike and Paloma — made “extreme” Category 4, where winds have to be at least 131 mph. “That’s a lot,” Bell said. “But it’s typical of a very active season such as what we saw.”

Curry said this year’s large number of Category 4 storms indicates a “signal” of global warming. But Bell said the science is not quite clear on that.

At the National Hurricane Center one thing is clear. Meteorologist and spokesman Dennis Feltgen said: “We’re glad it’s over.”

On the Net

The National Hurricane Center: