The only thing that seems to be missing from a busy Atlantic hurricane season? The hurricanes.
Just three tropical storms have formed so far this year in the Atlantic basin. While the third named storm doesn’t normally form until Aug. 3 — meaning this year is ahead of average by that metric — the number of storms doesn’t tell the story.
All three systems have been “shorties,” brief low-end tropical storms with limited impacts. Accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), a measurement of the cumulative power of all Atlantic tropical storms, is running at about a third of normal for the date as a result.
The seasonal deficit will only continue to increase unless activity begins to dramatically ramp up through August and September — the historical peak of hurricane season — when longer-tracking, stronger systems typically develop. But there is no immediate sign of that ramp-up starting.
Neither the American nor European model ensemble forecast systems — supercomputer simulations, each of more than a dozen slightly different atmospheric scenarios — show much of a signal for tropical activity through the end of the first week of August. Similarly, the National Hurricane Center has not highlighted any regions of expected five-day development.
As of now, there’s no one thing to blame for the lackluster development.
Bouts of strong low-latitude wind and widespread sinking air have stood in the way of development at times, while persistent ocean-bound outbreaks of dry, dusty air blown from the Sahara Desert have helped smother blossoming thunderstorms that can sometimes turn any surviving tropical waves into organized storms.
No Atlantic named storms since #Colin weakened to a tropical depression on July 2nd, and none forecast for the next 5 days per National #Hurricane Center. 4 times in past 30 years has Atlantic had no named storm activity between July 3rd and August 3rd: 1993, 1999, 2000 and 2009. pic.twitter.com/DDygDICg7t
— Philip Klotzbach (@philklotzbach) July 29, 2022
As a result, the systems that have developed have either been tropical lows that do not strengthen at all or ones that develop so close to land that there isn’t enough time for them to strengthen. So, while the systems may be marginally impactful — Alex, the season’s first named storm, brought flooding rain to southern Florida in early June, for example — they do not contribute much to seasonal ACE.
But this kind of lower-than-expected activity is not unheard of so early in the hurricane season, even in years that go on to become quite active. And there are still signs that the peak season could see a number of hurricanes.
In an early June news release, leading scientists at Colorado State University continued to forecast a season of well-above-average activity. Despite a lackluster first two months of summer, the release continued to cite many seasonal factors that typically lead to strong tropical development.
First, there is the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, often abbreviated as ENSO. Related to the sloshing of warm and cold water around the Pacific, the oscillation has influences in long-term atmospheric conditions worldwide. Years with a La Niña — the phase of the oscillation currently in effect, per NOAA — tend to see more Atlantic hurricane activity, with conditions unusually favorable for tropical systems to develop and strengthen.
The presence of La Niña, combined with oceanic temperatures in the Atlantic that are currently warmer than average — a testament both to a warming world and to favorable wind patterns — gives forecasters confidence in an above-active hurricane season.
History also tells us to avoid placing too much stock on early-season activity.
This is the first year since 2017 that a hurricane has not developed in the Atlantic by Aug. 1. That year, an uninterrupted stretch of nine consecutive hurricanes formed from late August through mid-October, including the devastating Harvey, Irma and Maria.
In 2015, there were also no hurricanes by Aug. 1; that was the most recent year to end up with below-average Atlantic tropical activity.