Hurricane season has been quiet so far, but the Atlantic is finally waking up

It's still too soon to know if anything will threaten the United States.
satellite image of a storm
A storm developing off the west coast of Africa on August 30, 2018. NOAA

Right on time, the Atlantic Ocean is waking up as we approach the peak of hurricane season. Conditions are looking more favorable for tropical development over the next couple of weeks, a far cry from the quiet, boring weather we’ve seen in the Atlantic Ocean so far this summer. It’s too early to tell if anything will threaten the United States—contrary to what many folks are saying on social media—but the uptick in activity is a reminder that it’s important to stay prepared even in a relatively quiet hurricane season.

The growth of favorable conditions in the Atlantic is already apparent off the coast of Africa. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) started issuing advisories on Potential Tropical Cyclone Six near the Cabo Verde Islands on Thursday.

The term “potential tropical cyclone” is a designation assigned to a tropical wave that hasn’t yet become a tropical cyclone, but it’s expected to develop into one soon and is close enough to land that watches and warnings are required. Before the new designation came into use in 2017, the NHC couldn’t issue alerts until the system officially became a tropical depression or tropical storm, hampering efforts to warn folks in the path of a growing threat.

a hurricane forecast
The NHC’s forecast for Potential Tropical Cyclone Six at 11:00 AM EDT August 30, 2018. NHC

P.T.C. Six is unusual because it’s about as far east as a storm can form in the Atlantic. Tropical waves moving off of Africa usually need a few days over the ocean before they gather enough organization to develop. The storm, which will be named Florence, will bring heavy rain and gusty winds to the southern Cabo Verde Islands over the next couple of days. Florence is expected to grow into a hurricane as it heads toward the central Atlantic through the weekend. Storms on a track toward the middle of the Atlantic typically don’t affect the United States, but it’s far enough out that it’s worth close monitoring.

The storm near Africa is a sign that the environment is changing. It’s been pretty quiet in the Atlantic so far this year. We’ve had five named storms this season, but only one of those storms affected land; Alberto made landfall in Florida as a strong subtropical storm at the end of May.

The Atlantic has been quiet this summer due to a mixture of cooler waters, dry air, and subsidence stifling thunderstorms before they can develop. On top of that, unusually high wind shear across the ocean has torn apart most thunderstorm complexes before they could organize into something more. It’s easy to forget how fragile tropical cyclones are despite the power they can unleash.

We’re seeing those unfavorable conditions start to diminish just as we reach the peak of hurricane season, which is historically the second week of September. Accordingly, weather models are starting to show the potential for tropical cyclones developing around the Atlantic over the next week or two, including the one near the Cabo Verde Islands today.

You may have seen some of this chatter on your Facebook and Twitter feeds this week. Weather models are usually unreliable beyond five days in advance. A model can show a huge storm in one run and the storm disappears six hours later when a new run of the model comes in. However, these big, phantom storms are like social media catnip, reaching and panicking tens of thousands of people before anyone has a chance to clarify or refute the misinformation.

If you ever see anything on social media that sounds too outlandish or terrifying to be real, check with the experts at the National Hurricane Center or your favorite local meteorologist. No one person or organization is going to have an “exclusive” on a storm that nobody else is talking about. If there’s a big threat on the horizon, many meteorologists will be talking about it.

The most important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take a strong storm to cause a big mess. The majority of deaths in a landfalling tropical system are from flooding, and some of the worst flooding disasters were caused by storms that “only” made it to land as a weak storm.

Panicking over social media rumors is a waste of time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare just in case something pops up in the coming weeks. If you live in a hurricane-prone area, make sure you have an evacuation plan and enough food, water, and supplies to get through an extended power or utility outage, keeping in mind that these effects can extend hundreds of miles inland.