Don't be fooled by the present lull in the tropical Atlantic: the months of August, September and October will bring more storms and hurricanes.
This is likely to be the sixth straight year where we see more activity than usual, according to expert forecasters, but it will be difficult to top last year's record pace.
On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration increased the expected tally of tropical activity in the Atlantic basin, which includes the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.
The updated seasonal outlook calls for:
- 15 to 21 named storms (including the five that already formed), which is up from May's prediction of 13 to 20. The average from 1991 to 2020 was 14, and last year had a record high of 30.
- Seven to 10 hurricanes (which includes Elsa), up from six to 10 in the May prediction. The average is seven, but 2020 had 14.
- Three to five major hurricanes (Category 3 winds or higher), unchanged from the May prediction. The average is three, and last year tied the record of seven.
"Taking time to prepare now and having those supplies on hand for the duration of the season is a smart move," said Matthew Rosencrans, NOAA's lead seasonal hurricane forecaster.
The billion-dollar question is: where will the storms go?
Conditions are broadly favorable for more and stronger Atlantic storms in the months ahead, though their exact tracks cannot be predicted more than several days out. NOAA does not make outlooks for the number of storms that will affect land or where, only the ocean-wide activity.
On the time scale of one to three weeks, computer models and cyclic patterns can give clues about which regions of the continent are more or less vulnerable. But there's currently no way of knowing how winds might steer any particular storm in early October, for example.
These statistics don't translate neatly to impacts, but busier than usual is not a good starting point.
To reiterate a common saying in the field, it only takes one direct hit to make it a bad year for you.
Those ranges are issued with a 70% confidence, which implies a 15% chance that the storm count exceeds 21 and exhausts the naming list once again. Or, there's a 15% chance that it comes in below expectations, though that wouldn't make it a below-normal season, per se.
A big factor this year, like last year, is the La Niña pattern expected to develop in the Pacific Ocean. Its counterpart, El Niño, usually suppresses Atlantic hurricanes while fueling the Pacific instead.
So while 2021 is primed in some respects, the sea surface temperatures are closer to normal than last year, which makes it less likely we'd be in such a hyperactive state.
Climate change isn't necessarily boosting these storm counts. Much of the increase in recent decades is due to better monitoring and being on the high side of a long-term cycle for the past 25 years or so. But warming oceans and warming air are linked to faster winds and heavier rainfall in the hurricanes that do form. And rising sea levels enlarge the coastal areas that are vulnerable to storm surge.
As of Thursday, the last time there was an active tropical storm in the Atlantic was 27 days ago.
Usually, that's not an earth-shattering observation to make in early August, as mid-summer can often bring weeks of relative calm.
But after 2020's frenzy of storms and the fast start to the 2021 season, a lull like that suddenly stands out.
Last year, there was never more than 12 consecutive days of inactivity in the Atlantic between Arthur in May and Iota in November. In all, a record 30 named storms formed.
This year momentarily eclipsed 2020's pace of activity when Elsa became the earliest-forming "E" storm. It soaked parts of Virginia on July 8 and dissipated the next day over the Northeast.
There's been nothing of note since then, as dry air masses and unfavorable wind currents over the Atlantic have muscled out new development.
But some of those ingredients and patterns are about to change in the weeks ahead. As of Wednesday afternoon, a couple of disturbances off the west coast of Africa only had slight chances of organizing into a storm over the next five days, according to the National Hurricane Center.
So there are no immediate concerns for our part of the world, but that is always a region to keep watching as we head toward Labor Day.
There are plenty of ways to get ready even if there isn't a storm out there yet. In fact, most of these things are best done weeks before a "cone of uncertainty" is aiming at us. Keep in mind that flooding is our main inland tropical threat in central Virginia, along with trees falling in high wind.
- Assemble or update a kit of supplies you could use in the event of a prolonged power outage or blocked roads.
- Review insurance coverage and look into flood insurance, which is not in a standard policy. Once a storm is moving in, it's already too late to put a flood policy into effect.
- Check your property for vulnerability to falling trees or standing water.
- Encourage friends and family who live at the coast to check their plans and readiness.
- Follow official information sources on social media like the National Weather Service in Wakefield, National Hurricane Center, Virginia Department of Emergency Management and Virginia Department of Transportation, and sign up for automated emergency alerts from your local or county agencies.