NOAA scientists say that the 1998 hurricane season brought an above-average number of hurricanes and tropical storms -- including the devastating Hurricane Mitch -- making it the deadliest Atlantic region season in more than 200 years in terms of storm-related fatalities. A contributing factor to the increased activity -- 50 percent more hurricanes and 30 percent more tropical storms than normal -- was a climate phenomenon called La Niña, cooler-than-average sea-surface temperatures in the central tropical Pacific.
In a joint Aug. 4 outlook, forecasters at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, National Hurricane Center and Hurricane Research Division correctly predicted above normal tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic between August and October. The Atlantic season, which runs June 1 to Nov. 30, spawned 14 tropical cyclones (average is 10) with ten becoming hurricanes (average is six). Almost all of these storms and hurricanes occurred subsequent to the forecasts. There were $3.2 billion in insured damages and 21 deaths in the United States.
"The art of forecasting is better than ever, thanks to our talented people and our investment in science and technology," said Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley. "Nevertheless, events of this Atlantic hurricane season are sobering. Our thoughts and prayers are with the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the hurricane season. I am deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life and property and the enormous economic losses. They are a reminder that we need to continue the momentum of modern forecasting, hurricane awareness for everyone from policymakers to families, communications designed to reach even the remotest of villages, and building disaster resistant communities."
"Our investment in technology has enhanced our ability to make better hurricane predictions," said D. James Baker, NOAA administrator. "We, as a nation, need to continue striving toward better hurricane track forecasts. The payoff is less disruption caused by needlessly evacuating areas that aren't affected, and longer lead times in which to evacuate people and safeguard property in areas that are."
"The season started a little late with Tropical Storm Alex on July 27, but made up for lost time," said Jerry Jarrell, director of the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center. "In a remarkable span of 35 days between Aug.19 and Sept. 2, 10 named tropical storms formed. That's nearly a whole year's worth of activity crammed into little more than a month."
The year tallied seven landfalling storms in the continental United States, including Hurricanes Bonnie, Earl, Georges, Frances and Mitch (the last two were downgraded to a tropical storm on landfall) and Tropical Storms Charley and Hermine.
The 1998 Atlantic season was the deadliest in more than 200 years. Not since the hurricane of 1780 that struck Martinique, St. Eustatius and Barbados (Oct. 10-16, 1780), killing between 20,000 and 22,000, has the Atlantic hurricane basin seen storm- related fatalities like those of Hurricane Mitch (Oct. 21-Nov. 5). Wire services attribute some 11,000 deaths to Mitch, with thousands more missing.
In this "mean" season, Mitch, a Category 5 monster, registered average sustained winds near 180 mph (Oct. 25) with gusts well over 200 mph. Mitch was the fourth most intense hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic basin this century based on barometric pressure, and the strongest ever observed in the month of October. (For additional details, see the National Climatic Data Center's Web site at http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ol/reports/mitch/mitch.html
During the 1998 season,
NOAA scientists, working with NASA and University
"In Bonnie, Danielle and Georges, we had six or seven aircraft observing the same hurricane simultaneously," Willoughby said. "Advanced observational instrumentation and remote sensing technology aboard NOAA's Gulfstream-IV high altitude jet and WP- 3D airplanes make each of these platforms an airborne laboratory, vastly more capable than those flying just a couple of decades ago. We can study and understand hurricanes on all scales, from a single raindrop to hemisphere-wide winds that control the storm's motion."
NOAA's hurricane forecasting technology includes sophisticated super computers and their numerical models, observational systems such as the GOES satellites, and "hurricane hunter" aircraft that include a new Gulfstream-IV jet and two WP-3D Orion turboprops.