A Look Back at the 2021 Hurricane Season and Kickoff to the 2021 Season with Dr. Phil Klotzbach

What we’re talking about

The Tropical Meteorology Project at Colorado State University has been releasing a seasonal hurricane forecast every year since 1984 under Dr. William Gray. Dr. Phil Klotzbach currently leads the research program and is well-known among the emergency management community for his annual forecasts. Dr. Klotzbach will share the latest update for the 2021 season and indications on how the forecast might be changing on the eve of an updated forecast, which will be released by Colorado State on June 3, 2021.


(0:00 – 0:19)

Today marks the beginning of another hurricane season and 2021 comes on the hills of the historic 2020 season. Will this season be a repeat? Our guest in this episode is Colorado State’s Dr. Phil Glatzbach. We’ll take a look back at last season’s highlights, the latest predictions for the 2021 season, and a look ahead to the National Hurricane Conference in mid-June.

(0:21 – 2:10)

This is Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage, and educate the emergency management community. Our topics are timely and relevant, intended to promote the exchange of ideas and best practices. Now, here’s your host, Greg Paget.

And we’re so thrilled to have Dr. Phil Glatzbach again back on Disaster Recovery Roundtable. Phil, we’ve had you on before, always great sessions when we talk about the season, how it’s going, the lookbacks, and then of course as we take a look ahead to the upcoming next season. And this year it’s 2021 after a historic 2020.

Have you even caught your breath yet? Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind past few months. Obviously 2020 was just an extremely active season with 14 overall hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin trailing only 2005, which had 15. And obviously we also set the record for most named storms in the season with 30 last year, breaking the old record set in 2005 of 28.

So one for the record books and obviously six hurricanes hitting the continental US as well, so extremely active from that perspective as well. Now, I know you’re getting ready to release the updated forecast for June. It’ll be out in a couple of days and we’ll give people some details at the end of this podcast and where they can find that.

But as we take a look back at what you’ve already kind of put together number-wise, looking into 2021 as the season’s getting ready to start today, the first day, what are some trends? What are you seeing? Please, I guess the big question is, is it going to be another 30 storm year? We certainly don’t. We do not think so. Obviously last year was one for the record books.

We are forecasting another above normal hurricane season in 2021. We’re forecasting a total of 17 storms. The average is about 14.

(2:10 – 7:27)

We’re forecasting eight hurricanes. The average is about seven. We’re forecasting four major hurricanes.

Those are category three, four, five hurricanes, winds of 111 miles an hour or greater, and the average is about three. So we’re a little bit above normal hurricane season in 2021, but not to the levels we saw last year where we had just an insane number of storms. We had 30 overall storms, 14 hurricanes, and seven major hurricanes last year.

Out of all those storms last year, we saw just so many in the Gulf and Louisiana seemed to be the bullseye, unfortunately, for those folks there. Was that unusual alone in itself to see just one particular region just getting impact after impact? Yeah. Even if you just look at the track map from the National Hurricane Center of all the tracks of storms last year, just the amount of activity in the Western Caribbean and especially in the Gulf of Mexico, it was just insane.

It was an insanely active season in the Gulf of Mexico, obviously. That is extremely unusual. It’s not to say that it couldn’t happen again, but obviously the odds of another season with so many storms in the Gulf of Mexico is quite low, but obviously it’s just because you had an active season in the Gulf in 2020 doesn’t mean you’re, say, more or less likely to have that in 2021.

The odds of a season or the odds of that much activity in the Gulf in any year is quite low. And I’ve heard you mention again there was a late surge of still very increased activity, very strong storms past October 1 in the Atlantic Basin, including two major hurricanes that hit Honduras in Central America and just devastated that country. How unusual was that alone in the season as a whole? Yeah.

It was an extremely active season and an extremely active latent season. We ended up with five major hurricanes forming after October 1 last year. Prior to 2020, the most we had observed in October, November after October 1 was only two.

And as you mentioned, we had two devastating hurricanes in November make landfall in Nicaragua and brought really massive impacts to Nicaragua and Honduras, especially Hurricane Ada, which made landfall as a category four hurricane, brought tremendous amounts of flooding. It was a very slow moving storm, so it caused huge flooding in Nicaragua, Honduras. And just the amount of impacts of those two storms in Central America was devastating.

I believe Honduras, the losses from Ada and Iota was about 30% of that country’s gross domestic product in a single year. So just a tremendously devastating pair of storms. And they were just a couple of weeks apart too, I think was another thing that’s, you know, it’s pretty difficult to deal with one and then to have to turn around and, you know, in the middle of recovery, deal with another one coming in that’s just as strong, if not stronger.

It is really unfortunate for those folks down there. As we take a look now, as we look also across the Atlantic Basin in this historical year that we just went through, I know you were looking at other factors. You’re looking at climate change.

What are you seeing as far as some of these results? What can you tie or link to to say, yes, you know, climate factors around the globe are impacting sea surface temperatures or whatever, to the point where we’re seeing and we’re going to see a heightened level of hurricanes to come? Yeah, and so there’s, you know, there’s a variety of factors that go into, you know, the potential impacts of climate change on hurricanes. Even a non-climate change related factor, we know we have more people, there’s more stuff in harm’s way along the coastline. There’s been demographic shifts to the coast and obviously the amount of wealth that we have, we have more stuff than our parents and grandparents did.

So there’s just more exposure along the coastline. So we see more damage from storms because of that. But then also when it comes to climate change’s impacts, you know, we don’t necessarily expect to see more overall storms or even more overall hurricanes.

It’s that the storms that do form may potentially get a little bit stronger. With climate change, you obviously warm the ocean surface, which is a plus for the storms. It tends to strengthen the storms since hurricanes live off of warm ocean water.

But it also tends to be associated with warmer temperatures throughout the atmosphere. So when you warm in climate change, you warm at the surface, but you also warm at 10,000 feet, 20,000 feet, 30,000 feet. And that tends to stabilize the atmosphere a little bit, which is a negative for storms.

But overall, it’s likely to maybe see a little bit stronger storms. But I think some of the more tertiary impacts are things we should be even more concerned about. One is just sea level rise.

As sea levels rise, you know, year on year, they’re not huge increases, but over time, say sea levels rise, you know, a foot in the next 50 years, one foot of sea level rise doesn’t necessarily seem like much if you’re living in Colorado at 5, 6,000 feet. But if you’re, you know, one foot of sea level rise can make a big difference in how much farther the water goes inland in certain areas. I was gonna say, I know down in South Beach, for example, they’re having problems now with heightened sea level rise in a lot of areas around South Beach in many neighborhoods.

(7:27 – 8:11)

Correct. Yes. Yeah.

And you have, you have those issues. And then obviously in other areas, you have land subsidence as well. And obviously if you have the sea level going up and the land sinking, that’s a double whammy.

One other big concern we have with climate change is the warmer atmosphere that you get with climate change also means it can hold more moisture and consequently you’re likely to see more rainfall from storms in the future as well. There’s a lot of other work looking at our storms slowing down because slower moving storms like Harvey and Florence can cause just a lot more, obviously can cause massive flooding. So there’s a lot of work being done on that particular issue as well, but that’s a little more uncertain at this point, whether storms are going, storms have already, or if storms in the future are likely to go slower.

(8:11 – 14:07)

We also saw, you know, impacts across the board from these storms all the way up the eastern seaboard. We have East Saiz, for example, that impact the communities all the way up into New England. And I guess when you have a year with 30 named storms, obviously everyone’s going to be in play, so to speak, not just the Gulf of Mexico.

Was there anything unusual about the proximity and the coverage of where the storms were besides just, you know, what we talked about already with Louisiana seeing a lot of activity? Yeah, I mean, Easy East was a good example of a storm, you know, it was a category one hurricane when it made landfall, but it was tracking fairly close to the coast, so part of the circulation of the storm did continue to be over water. And then also you had some mid-latitude influences to kind of help give that storm sector some extra energy. So even though it made landfall in North Carolina, it actually, it was a tropical storm well inland all the way up into New York and even, I believe, it wasn’t officially classified as post-tropical until it got all the way up into New England.

So a very, obviously several days after the storm had made landfall. So there are these storms that can do that kind of thing as well. So these storms are more than just coastal events, they can bring significant impacts fairly far inland.

I think one of the things about last year was at the end of the day, while Florida obviously had some impacts from Ada and certainly the western part of the Panhandle had significant impacts from Sally, in general Florida actually did pretty well given how many storms were out there, you know, did not have 30 storms and 14 hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin and have no hurricanes hitting Florida, that’s actually pretty good for them. When we’re also talking about just these increased numbers now that we’re seeing and some of them as a result of climate change, does that mean we’ll never again see a season like 1992 when there were only seven named storms? Are those years, like, long gone forever? Well, there’s a couple of factors. So with climate change, you don’t necessarily expect to see, say, overall more overall storms.

But there is a non-physical increase in the number of storms we’re observing and that’s just due to improvements in technology. We have these microwave satellites at Better Head Plus to be able to detect kind of these weak systems that probably otherwise wouldn’t have named, but with this new technology we know that they’re there and we’re able to observe them and there’s also some improving kind of diagnostic tools that we use now that we didn’t just have in the past. So consequently, we’re naming about two to even as many as three storms per year now that we wouldn’t necessarily have named in the 1980s and 90s.

So yes, with those kind of improvements in technology, we probably are a lot less likely to see a year with, say, seven named storms, just given these technological improvements. But in 2014, when we had pretty much the exact same technology we have now, we did only end up with eight storms that year. So you can still have years with relatively low number of named storms, not necessarily we expect to see 30 storms every year.

Stay with us. We’ll have more from Dr. Glatzbach, including how he feels about the new naming system put in place earlier this year by the World Meteorological Organization. We’ll be right back.

Here’s a preview of the next episode of Disaster Recovery Roundtable. What’s it like to cover hurricanes for the nation’s top media outlet for tracking storms and severe weather? In our next episode, we’ll hear from The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams. Yeah, I think that being in a storm, first of all, allows you to fully grasp what people are going through.

So it makes me a better meteorologist so that I can articulate better what someone’s going to experience, what it’s going to feel like as best I can. And then also just being out there, obviously, with the people that you’re trying to help makes a difference. For this and other episodes of Disaster Recovery Roundtable, visit tidalbasing group.com. Tidal Basin is your hurricane disaster management team.

Be sure to stop by booth number 307 during the June 14th through 17th National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans to learn more about our services. And you can catch many of our Tidal Basin experts in workshop sessions during the conference. Visit tidalbasinggroup.com for a complete schedule.

And be sure to stop by our booth and say hi. You’re listening to our special coverage of hurricane season 2021. Now back to your host, Greg Paget.

Okay, welcome back to this Disaster Recovery Roundtable. We’re chatting today with Dr. Phil Glotzbach on this first day of the hurricane season for 2021. And Phil, of course, last year we had so many name storms in 2020.

After the season was over, there was a lot of confusion within the public and the media about using this Greek alphabet naming system. Because typically, you go through the alphabet letters that are chosen for each season. And when you go beyond that, then the World Meteorological Organization looks at using the Greek alphabet.

But from what I understand, they met in the offseason and decided that that was not going to be the preferred way to go moving forward. What do you think about that? And does that make sense to you from a meteorology standpoint and just from a classification and trying to keep one storm separate from the other when you’ve got so many out there? Yeah, so there’s been a couple of new things that have happened since the 2020 hurricane season. So historically, there’s basically so obviously, the alphabet is 26 letters, five of those letters are not used.

They don’t use Q, U, X, Y, and Z. So there’s 21 letters that are used. So after you got through 21 name storms, you will go into the Greek alphabet. And so that happened first in 2005.

And then obviously, it happened again in 2020. But there’s obviously confusion when you start getting into the Greek alphabet because the letters of the Greek alphabet don’t necessarily correspond to the letters of our alphabet. So say you have alpha, and then you have beta, but then you have gamma.

(14:07 – 14:17)

And then you have a storm like zeta. So zeta is the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, but obviously, Z is the final letter of the English alphabet. So there’s a confusion there.

(14:17 – 14:25)

People think, oh, we’ve already gone through the entire Greek alphabet. And you also have zeta, eta, and theta in a row in the Greek alphabet. So that can get really confusing.

(14:25 – 14:59)

So what the Hurricane Center and the World Meteorological Organization have decided to do is starting this year is you will go through the same 21 letters. And then if you, say, get to the storm number 22, what will happen is you will then start basically a supplemental list of names. So it will start back with the letter A. So if we get a 20-second storm, it will also start with the letter A. And I think this does help at least eliminate some of the confusion because the Greek alphabet can obviously be kind of confusing since the letters don’t correspond.

(15:00 – 20:02)

So if for some reason we do get the 22 storms this year, it’ll go back to the letter A. Thanks for clarifying that. I’m sure the secret’s out now. I was not a pledge for any fraternity, obviously, back in my golden years.

So it is quite confusing to figure out those letters for the Greek alphabet. So I know a lot of people in the media, myself included, just with so many names, so many storms, it did seem to get a little confusing there. So as we look now going down the road for 2021, I know you’ve got some new products that are coming out this year.

What are some of those and how will they help, for example, the emergency management community when we talk about getting a scale of what’s happening or a gauge of where we are within the season? Are there surges? Are there trends coming as we go through, you know, what’s a long season, six months? Yeah, yeah, you’re right. I mean, the Atlantic hurricane season is a long season. It starts June 1st, ends November 30th.

There’s even talk about moving the hurricane season earlier to starting on May 15th since we’ve had some weak short-lived storms for it prior to the start of the season. But obviously, even so, six months is a long season. And the Atlantic hurricane season is extremely peaked.

You get about 90% of all your major hurricane activity between August and October. So, you know, the hurricane season, while six months long, really most of it occurs during a three-month period. About half of all your hurricane activity occurs just during the month of September.

So really a very peaked season in the Atlantic, much more peaked in the eastern or western North Pacific basins. And so we do have some new products that we’ve been working on the last couple of years with our seasonal forecasts. In addition to kind of these statistical modeling tools that we’ve been using for 30, 35 years, we’re now using more climate models to forecast basically what the environment is likely to look like during the hurricane season.

So is there going to be above normal vertical wind shear or lower than normal vertical wind shear? Too much shear, too much vertical wind shear, if that’s strong, tears apart hurricanes as they’re trying to develop and to intensify. So we’ll be working on these types of approaches to really try to better help improve the skill of the seasonal forecasts. And then during the hurricane season, our group at CSU, we have a real-time tropical cycle and statistics website.

So you’re able to check in and see, you know, how the season is tracking based or compared with the long-term average and then also compare with other historical hurricane seasons. There’s also a website, seasonalhurricanepredictions.org, that’s a group that was a combined effort between our group at CSU and spearheaded by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. And on that website, we have displayed about 25 different seasonal hurricane forecasts from various private sector, weather companies, government agencies, as well as universities.

So if you’re really interested in seasonal forecasting and what CSU is thinking, but what other groups are thinking as well, certainly invite you to check out that website, seasonalhurricanepredictions.org. And then also you have that updated forecast, as we mentioned at the top of the show, coming out this Thursday with the latest information, latest greatest on what, you know, your models and what your research there is showing as we take a, you know, getting into with the hurricane season underway now for 2021. Yes, that’s correct. We have an update on June the 3rd, and then we’re putting out two additional updates, one in early July and one in early August.

And while obviously that’s already into the hurricane season, again, over about 90% of all your major hurricane activity occurs after the 1st of August. So it gives us basically one last chance to kind of tweak the numbers. And that’s the forecast.

Historically, the one in early August also has the highest levels of skill, which you would expect because you’re closest to the event you’re trying to predict. Right. All makes sense.

And of course, also this year for the first time, the hurricane conference is being held in mid June in New Orleans. It’s June 14th through the 17th at the Hilton Riverside. If you’re interested in seeing Phil, Phil will be down there on Monday, as well as on Wednesday, doing a couple of sessions talking about the season, climate change impact, some of the things talked about today in the podcast, but elaborating a little bit more there catch Phil.

And of course, all the great presentations that will be taking place down at the hurricane conference this year, June 14th through the 17th. You can learn more about that at hurricane meeting.com and for Phil’s latest forecast for this Thursday, as well as all the other information and that research that he just chatted about, we’ll have links for you with our podcast notes. So you can go and find out all about that information and get the latest on the 2021 hurricane season.

Dr. Phil Glatzbach, thanks so much again for joining us here on the Disaster Recovery Roundtable. Thanks so much, Greg. Take care.

You’ve been listening to Disaster Recovery Roundtable, a platform to explore, engage and educate. For more information on this episode, visit our podcast page at tidalbasinggroup.com. You can download previous podcasts, learn more about the programs we discussed and suggest a topic for a future episode. You can also find us on your favorite podcast provider.

This has been a Tidal Basin production. Thanks for listening.