Published on 12/01/05

Record hurricane season spins to a close

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

As Tropical Storm Epsilon swirled about 725 miles east of Bermuda on Nov. 30, the worst Atlantic hurricane season on record officially came to a close.

Epsilon was expected to send large ocean swells crashing on the island's shores before spinning out to sea, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advisory.

The 26th named storm tops off the busiest and deadliest hurricane season on record. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma caused extensive damage along the U.S. Gulf Coast; and coupled with Stan in Central America, the storms killed thousands.

"With warm ocean temperatures persisting in the Atlantic Basin, I wouldn't be surprised if we have a named storm or two in December," said state climatologist David Stooksbury.

As far as the record number of tropical storms, "We have to be careful here," said Stooksbury, a professor of engineering and atmospheric sciences with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"Yes, it is a record," he said. "But our records of tropical activity, especially out in the ocean, are short."

Joel Paz, a UGA Cooperative Extension climate specialist, said early hurricane predictions varied this year. Experts expected 12 to 15 named storms and seven to nine hurricanes, with three to five major hurricanes (category 3 or higher).

"If you look at the long-term average, 2005 was really higher than average," Paz said. That average called for 10 named storms and eight hurricanes, with two major storms.

For the record, 2005 has seen 26 named storms, 13 hurricanes and seven major storms. Three hit category 5.

The best explanation for the active hurricane season, Stooksbury said, is a 20- to 30-year cycle in ocean temperatures and tropical activity. From 1970 to 1994, the Atlantic Basin averaged nine tropical storms, five hurricanes and 1.5 major hurricanes per year.

"We entered the active phase of the cycle in 1995," he said. "From 1995 to 2004, the Atlantic Basin averaged 13.6 tropical storms, 7.8 hurricanes and 3.8 major hurricanes per year."

When satellites were launched in the 1960s, tracking storm paths in the open oceans became more consistent. During that time, Atlantic storm activity was heading into a low period, Stooksbury said.

"We're doing a better job, because of satellites and reconnaissance planes, of counting all the storms," he said. "We used to only count the storms when they hit us.

Some of these storms historically wouldn't have been named because they're not tropical weather events. Other very strong storms originating over the ocean are sometimes now named."

During August and September, the atmospheric conditions were very favorable for an increase in storms. And water temperatures were well above normal.

"Hurricanes are really thermal energy machines," Stooksbury said. "There's strong heating in the tropics through the summer, so that's kind of where you reach the max amount of heating around that time."

But 2005's warm air isn't a sign of global warming.

"One year doesn't really say much on global warming," Stooksbury said. "The increase in storms can be explained by known conditions across the Atlanta Basin. It looks like an active year. Any given year is not evidence for or against global warming."

This year, Georgia didn't see the rain and damage that hurricanes Charley, Francis, Ivan and Jeanne brought in 2004.

In early July, tornadoes from Tropical Storm Cindy tore through the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga. Then rain from Hurricane Dennis flooded areas already thoroughly soaked by Cindy.

In October, Tropical Storm Tammy hit northeast Florida and dumped buckets of rain on Brunswick and southeast Georgia as it moved up the coast.

"Most people outside of southeast Georgia didn't even know we had Tammy," Stooksbury said.

Nevertheless, Cindy, Dennis and Tammy helped make 2005 one of the wettest summers on record in Georgia.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.