The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season officially began on June 1st. Over the course of any given season, a non-trivial portion of my writing is devoted to tropical systems. They are newsworthy, impact lives, and the impetus for some of my early interests in meteorology as a child. Only a few days into the 2023 season, there have already been four strange things that caught my eye.
A Subtropical Storm In January
As I wrote a few weeks ago, the National Hurricane Center noted that a subtropical storm formed in January. Subtropical cyclones are not associated with fronts but are low pressure systems with tropical and extratropical characteristics. In its discussion, National Hurricane Center forecasters said, “Through the course of typical re-assessment of weather systems in the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) area of responsibility, NHC hurricane specialists have determined that an area of low pressure that formed off the northeastern coast of the United States in mid-January should be designated as a subtropical storm.” It was classified as the first cyclone of 2023 in the Atlantic basin and designated AL012023. It did not receive the name “Arlene.” Though not unprecedented, tropical and subtropical activity in January is rare.
Tropical Storm Arlene Moved South In The Gulf of Mexico
Speaking of strange things, the movement of the first named storm of the year is worthy of mention. Tropical Storm Arlene formed on June 2nd. I was actually jut north of the storm in Destin, Florida as it developed. Given its location, normally I would have been concerned about it drifting north and ruining our little beach time. However, it did not move to the north at all. It drifted south towards Cuba before ultimately fizzling out. Because of unfavorable wind shear conditions, it really did not amount to much, but it gave us Weather Geeks something to talk about. I could not recall a storm at that location moving in such a manner. Many colleagues agreed. Why did it move away from the coast? According to Weather.com meteorologists, “It was between an expansive ridge of high pressure over the Central U.S. and a weak trough over the adjacent Atlantic, which helped push the system equatorward.”
The First Named Storm Was Early
Technically, Arlene was the 2nd tropical system of the year, but it was the first named storm. Colorado State University tropical meteorologist Phil Klotzbach noted that it is the 4th June in a row that has featured Atlantic named storm formation. He went on to tweet, “In the satellite era (since 1966), ~55% of Junes have 1+ Atlantic named storm formations.” Though it is not strange to have a June named storm, Arlene is, climatologically-speaking, an early arrival. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the first named storm typically is not expected until around June 20th. Hurricane expert Michael Lowry’s Tweet below provides more perspective on the timing of what would become Tropical Storm Arlene.
The Jekyll-Hyde Scenario: Warm Seas vs. El Niño
The fourth strange thing is the actual scenario emerging this season. El Niño has rapidly established itself. Typically, the presence of El Nino, anomalously warm central Pacific Ocean water, can suppress Atlantic hurricane season activity through atmospheric interactions. Honestly, I always hesitate to write that statement because many people interpret it as meaning we may not have any significant storms during El Niño. That’s not the case. In fact, NOAA is calling for near-normal hurricane season. By their numbers, they expect:
- 12 to 17 total named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher).
- 5 to 9 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher).
- 1 to 4 major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher).
One worrisome observation is the hurricane “fuel” supply. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Atlantic basin are very warm. Writing in Axios, Andrew Freedman says, “The tropical Atlantic is especially toasty, particularly temperatures in a crucial swath of the sea known as the “Main Development Region,” where many tropical storms and hurricanes form and intensify.” This tension between El Niño and warm SSTs may be why Freedman calls it “unchartered territory.” Climatologist Brian Brettschneider offers further perspective below.
As I always caution, people who experienced Hurricane Ian (2022), Hurricane Ida (2021), Hurricane Michael (2018) and other impactful storms probably do not recall the seasonal forecast. However, they certainly know their lives were changed by a storm. It only takes storm.