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2020 Atlantic hurricane season on pace to become the most active ever

12 Oct 2020

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Impact of Tropical Storm Amanda in El Salvador. Credit: WFP/Mauricio Martínez 

By Anthony Prassoulis, Information Management Consultant at OCHA ROLAC

The 2020 hurricane season got off to a blazing start and has not let up since. The Atlantic churned out its first two named storms, Arthur and Bertha, before June, marking the sixth consecutive year that a storm has formed outside the official hurricane season. With almost two months still left to go, the season has already produced 25 named storms, including four major hurricanes, reaching the ceiling for named storms predicted by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for 2020.

The season has already seen a remarkable 22 storms break records for being the earliest storm formed under their alphabetical designation. In fact, the season has been so active that NOAA resorted to using the Greek alphabet for only the second time in history after the number of storms exceeded regular naming conventions.

Alfa and Beta were quickly checked off the list after forming alongside Wilfred on 18 September, marking the first time in the modern era that three storms formed on the same day. Hurricane Delta, which strengthened into a Category 4 storm a mere 20 minutes after becoming Category 3, is now the strongest Greek-named storm on record, yet another benchmark of this record-breaking season.

The pace of the season so far has been frenzied even when compared with the most active year on record, 2005, which produced a record-setting 27 named storms, including 14 hurricanes and eight major hurricanes. By comparison, the 2005 hurricane season did not reach 25 named storms until 19 November.

The 2020 season, already the second busiest on record, is only three named storms away from becoming the most active ever. However, despite 2020’s record-setting pace, the development of major hurricanes and storm impacts has fortunately not matched the season’s frenzied pace to this point. So far, only three named storms, Laura, Teddy and Delta, have hit major hurricane status, while two others, Paulette and Sally, have come close to Category 3 strength.

Credit: OCHA ROLAC

Even weak storms can have a big impact

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the season so far, it is that even weak storms can be just as destructive as the more powerful ones, if not more. In Haiti, the poorest and most vulnerable country in the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Laura, caused flooding in 28 communes across 4 departments, leaving 31 people dead and 8 others missing. The General Directorate of Civil Protection requested humanitarian assistance to support at least 8,835 families whose houses were damaged or destroyed by the storm.

On 3 September, Hurricane Nana made landfall in southern Belize as a Category 1 hurricane. The passage of Nana left hundreds of houses damaged and destroyed more than 960 acres of banana plantations, with an estimated US$20.5 million dollars in losses. The storm hit Belize amid a significant spike in COVID-19 cases, from less than 50 at the end of July to more than 1,100 by 2 September, highlighting the need for many Caribbean countries currently experiencing a second wave to be prepared to respond to a potential double emergency.
Up to now, though, Central America has been harder hit than the Caribbean. Hanna, the first Atlantic hurricane of the season, crossed into Mexico as a tropical storm after making landfall in southern Texas, dropping a year’s worth of rain in a span of just 48 hours that left seven dead and two others missing due to intense flooding and landslides.

Tropical Storm Amanda, which originated over the Pacific, affected more than half a million people in El Salvador and Guatemala as it carved a path of destruction across Central America en route to the Atlantic, where its remnants reformed as Tropical Storm Cristobal. Amanda is now regarded as the most devastating hydrometeorological disaster in El Salvador since Hurricane Mitch in 1998.


Floods caused by Tropical Storm Nana in Escuintla, Guatemala. Credit: CONRED

Peak season could still produce a major hurricane

If history serves as a good indicator, we are not out of the woods just yet. In 2005, the month of October produced six named storms and one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record, Wilma. On 7 October 2020, Hurricane Delta, which ripped across the Yucatán Peninsula as an extremely dangerous Category 2 storm, served as an ominous reminder of the dangers still posed by this historically active season.

The likely presence of La Niña for the remainder of the season may potentially increase the activity and intensity of storms, which could propel 2020 into the record books as the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever.