El Niño’s exit paves way for hurricane-force winds in Western Washington

May 28, 2024, 3:39 PM | Updated: 6:44 pm

Photo: This Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, satellite image shows Hurricane Lee, right, off in the centra...

This Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023, satellite image shows Hurricane Lee, right, off in the central tropical Atlantic Ocean. (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via AP)

(Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via AP)

The National Hurricane Center and its parent organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), recently released this season’s hurricane outlook which begins on June 1.

The Pacific Northwest does not get hurricanes but does get hurricane-force winds with strong north Pacific storms that manage to brush the coast or track inland. Yet for those with relatives and friends who live in hurricane-prone areas along the east and gulf coasts, or if you plan to visit these regions, this outlook can be quite important in early readiness.

The outlook focused on yet another high-activity tropical cyclone season in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regions that began in the mid-1990s. There are 17 to 25 named storms anticipated, eight to 13 of which are expected to become hurricanes, and four to seven strengthening to major hurricanes — Category 3 or higher.

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The hurricane wind scale ranges from a Category 1 with sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph, a Category 3 of 111 to 129 mph, to the top Category — a 5 with sustained winds of 157 mph or higher. To give perspective, the granddaddy of all non-tropical wind storms to strike the lower 48 in American history, the 1962 Columbus Day Storm, had winds of up to 150 mph along the Oregon and Washington coasts, and in excess of 100 mph in the western interior valleys from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, BC.

The primary reason for the anticipated high number of tropical cyclones is the record warmth of sea surface temperatures from the African coast to the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard. Those sea surface temperatures are already well into the 80s.

Tropical cyclones feed off warm waters of 80 degrees or warmer, and can rapidly intensify with these record warm waters. An example last October in the eastern Pacific was hurricane Otis which intensified from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours before making landfall in Mexico.

More weather: Does Washington get tornadoes? Here’s what you need to know

Another key reason for the expected high number of tropical cyclones is that El Niño has ended. El Niño tends to tear apart Atlantic tropical cyclones. With the El Niño weather pattern removed, these tropical cyclones have more room to strengthen, hence the more active hurricane outlook for this season.

It is important to prepare in advance for any tropical cyclones. Not only do they produce strong damaging winds, but also heavy rain amounts and flooding, and even tornadoes. But most important is wind-driven storm surge. Since the 1960s, more than half of all tropical cyclone fatalities have involved storm surge flooding. There are a number of storm surge examples, but one significant recent event was Hurricane Katrina which struck Louisiana and Mississippi, resulting in over 1,300 fatalities.

So if you have friends and relatives in these hurricane-prone regions, they need to prepare for what may be a very active hurricane season. If you plan to visit these same areas this summer or early fall, know in advance of any potential incoming storms and prepare ahead of time. Waiting until the storm approaches may be too late.

Ted Buehner is the KIRO Newsradio meteorologist. You can read more of Ted’s stories here and follow him on X.

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