Why the tropics bear watching this November


November hurricanes are the rogues of the season, scofflaws loitering in an atmosphere trying to put the tropics to bed.

Nicknames such as “Wrong Way Lenny” and the “Yankee” cast them as outlaws, unpredictable creations steered by autumn weather patterns more accustomed to carrying arctic air south and pushing the first cold fronts through Florida.

While November tropical cyclones are unusual — 165 years of records reflect 76 hurricanes or tropical storms rearing up during the 11th month of the year — they can still pack a punch.

Eight storms have walloped Florida, including two hurricanes.

With sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean as much as 5 degrees above normal in late October, hurricane experts warned that 2017’s fertile Atlantic hurricane season may extend into Thanksgiving.

Hurricane season lasts June 1 through Nov. 30. This year has spawned 16 named storms, including ten hurricanes and five major hurricanes of category 3 or higher. An average season has 12 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

“I hope we’re done, but I learned a long time ago when you have these kinds of hyperactive seasons never to write them off early,” said Jonathan Erdman, a senior digital meteorologist with Weather.com. “There can always be one more surprise.”

As astronomical fall begins and the Earth tilts on its axis pushing the Northern Hemisphere away from the sun, changes in the upper atmosphere signal the end for tropical storms. A winterized jet stream pushes south, ocean temperatures cool, and a pattern of drier air settles in.

But some buck the system.

In the fall of 1985, high pressure ruled over Florida deep into a warm autumn and an oddball hurricane named Kate smacked the Panhandle with 100-mph winds four days before Thanksgiving.

The National Hurricane Center’s report on Kate notes that the atmosphere in mid-November 1985 was behaving more like late September and early October — peak times for the hurricane season. By the time Kate reached the eastern Gulf of Mexico, a frontal trough moving in from the west picked it up, sending it into Florida.

Kate was responsible for five deaths and drove an estimated 100,000 people from their homes during its approach, according to a National Hurricane Center report. Apalachicola’s oyster beds were decimated.

“We’re probably not going to see a big Cape Verde system rolling across the Atlantic and hitting Cat 5, but we can still expect some activity particularly this year with the waters being so warm,” said Jeff Weber, a meteorologist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “Usually by mid-November the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico have cooled down below the critical value of 80 degrees.”

Tropical cyclones typically need sea surface temperatures of 80 degrees or higher for development. As of Wednesday, areas in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are near 85 degrees, according to NOAA.

“We have seen storms in December and storms in January, so just because it’s technically near the end of season, they can still develop,” Weber said.

In the banner year of 2005 when the hurricane center ran out of storm names, November spawned three tropical cyclones — tropical storms Gamma and Delta, and Hurricane Epsilon. Tropical Storm Zeta formed Dec. 30, 2005, surviving through the New Year before fizzling out Jan. 6, 2006.

Hurricane Mitch, which formed Oct. 27, 1998, in deeply warm Caribbean waters just north of Cartagena, Colombia, grew to a Category 5 storm before hitting Honduras, making a trek through Guatemala and Mexico, and exiting back into the Gulf of Mexico.

Mitch pushed into Florida just north of Naples on Nov. 5 as a tropical storm.

Another November storm to hit Florida was the 1935 hurricane known as the Yankee because of its unusual approach from the north. The storm was born near Bermuda, rode the underbelly of the Bermuda High toward the coast of the Carolinas, but was then picked up by the clockwise swoop of another high pressure system that pushed it into Miami Nov. 4 as a Category 2 hurricane.

A Nov. 5, 1935 article in The Palm Beach Post notes a last-minute rush to batten down for the storm in West Palm Beach.

“After all, danger from tropical storms had supposedly passed for the season,” the article says.

November has birthed, in total, five major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher. Those include 2001’s Michelle; Paloma in 2008; Kate in 1985; 2016’s Otto; and 1999’s Lenny.

Lenny was given the nickname “wrong way” because it traveled west to east through the Caribbean, hitting the Leeward Islands as a Category 3 on Nov. 19.

Otto, which made a Thanksgiving Day landfall in Nicaragua on Nov. 24, 2016, was reclassified from a Category 2 to a Category 3 in the National Hurricane Center’s storm review.

“Officially we still have a month left in hurricane season, but most seasons you can begin to breathe a sigh of relief at this point,” Erdman said. “This year, I wouldn’t let your guard down until it’s painfully obvious that it’s done.”



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