The 2020 hurricane season, which brought destructive storms from Central America to the Gulf Coast of the United States and beyond, has proved to be one for the record books.
The storms began before the hurricane season officially kicked off, with the formation of Tropical Storm Albert in mid-May, two weeks before the official start of the Atlantic season on June 1.
In August, midway through the six-month season, scientists upgraded their outlook to say 2020 would be “one of the most active seasons,” and said they expected up to 25 named storms by the time it was over. By November, even that upgraded expectation was exceeded: There have now been 30 named storms — 13 of them hurricanes — breaking a record set in 2005, when 28 storms grew strong enough to be named. Fifteen that year became hurricanes.
The latest storm, Hurricane Iota, made landfall late Monday in Central America, a region still recovering after a hit from Hurricane Eta two weeks ago. Iota’s eye crossed over the coastline of northeastern Nicaragua. The Category 4 hurricane packed catastrophic winds and was expected to dump up to 30 inches of rain in the area all week.
There have been a record-breaking number of named storms.
Iota became the 30th storm this season. Before Iota, there was Theta, the season’s 29th named storm, breaking the annual record set in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
In September, when Tropical Storm Wilfred formed in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, the list of prepared storm names was exhausted, pushing meteorologists to the 24-letter Greek alphabet to name the next storms, only the second time meteorologists resorted to Greek letters. “We’ve only done it once,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman and meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center in Miami, said earlier in the season, “and that was 2005.”
Six of those hurricanes have been major storms.
According to Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, a major hurricane, Category 3 or higher, has winds beginning at 111 miles per hour. There have been six major hurricanes this season including, Laura, Teddy, Delta, Epsilon, Eta and Iota.
The strongest was Hurricane Iota, which grew to a Category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin are rare this late in the season. “It’s the latest ever,” Mr. Feltgen said, listing other late-season Category 5 hurricanes including Mitch in 1998 and an unnamed storm in 1932 that passed just east of the Cayman Islands on Nov. 9 and then struck Cuba later that day as a Category 4.
Which areas have been hit the most and the hardest?
As Central America bore the impact of Iota, its second major hurricane of the season, it was still recovering from the destruction left by Eta, a storm that made landfall in early November as a Category 4 and claimed at least 60 lives.
The Gulf Coast of the United States was also battered this season by seven named storms. Eta thrashed Florida twice, leaving tens of thousands without electricity and flooding beach communities.
Louisiana saw at least five storms this year, including Zeta, which in late October pulverized parts of New Orleans. In August, Hurricane Laura made landfall on the state’s coast as a Category 4 storm with 150-mile-per-hour winds, destroying office buildings, a sky bridge, trees and power lines. The storm was also responsible for at least six deaths in the state.
How has climate change affected hurricanes?
The busy hurricane season has raised repeated questions about how exactly climate change is affecting hurricanes in the Atlantic. While researchers aren’t able to say for certain that climate change will mean longer or more active hurricane seasons in the years to come, they do believe that global warming is changing storms.
Scientists say that the warm Atlantic surface temperatures have assisted to increase storm activity this season. The warmer ocean temperatures are “absolutely responsible for the hyperactive season,” said James P. Kossin, a climate scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s very likely that human-caused climate change contributed to that anomalously warm ocean.”
And research on the topic is ongoing.
Scientists have found that climate change affects how hurricanes form and strengthen; rising ocean temperatures linked to global warming can cause storms to weaken more slowly after they move onto land and remain destructive for longer. In a recent study, scientists found that 50 years ago a typical storm would have lost more than three-quarters of its intensity in the first 24 hours, when it might travel several hundred miles inland, but now it would lose only about half.
Henry Fountain contributed reporting.