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16 Jan 16 19:39

"As of 2 PM EST, Hurricane Alex was located at 32.6N, 28.0W, moving to the north-northeast at 20 mph. The hurricane has maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, and a central pressure of 981 mb."

Those previous two sentences, with storm-relevant details, are the standard way I begin almost every email that I send to stakeholders regarding a hurricane.  But in the case of Hurricane Alex, I typed those lines on January 14, 2016.  That's right - January. Not the other months that begin with "J," when Atlantic hurricane formation doesn't raise many eyebrows.

Alex formed from a swirl of clouds off the US southeast coast, and as the storm system moved to the east, it began to develop some characteristics of a tropical storm, and was named Subtropical Storm Alex on January 13.  By the morning of the 14th, Alex had organized itself enough and developed an eye, transitioning to a hurricane. Alex is the first hurricane to form in the Atlantic in January since 1938, and is currently the strongest January hurricane on record. Alex, being located in the extreme northeast Atlantic, is also only the second hurricane to form that far north and east in any month. Hurricane warnings were required for the Azores, which are affected by a hurricane approximately once every 10 to 20 years.

Alex was joined by Hurricane Pali in the Central Pacific.  From its formation on January 7, Hurricane Pali broke records.  Pali was immediately the earliest Central Pacific tropical cyclone on record.  The storm peaked at category 2 intensity, with winds of 100 mph, making it the strongest January hurricane in the Central Pacific (although it's not difficult for Pali to set records, given the lack of any comparable events).  The storm also took an odd south to southwest track, taking it within 2.5 degrees of the equator.  Only two other tropical cyclones have existed within 2 degrees of the equator.

The presence of Alex and Pali during the month of January has led many to wonder if these storms have the fingerprints of human-induced climate change.  The answer is, we don't know. It's exceedingly difficult to separate out the influence of climate variability (natural variations in the climate system) from climate change (variations in the climate system induced by industrialization) on individual weather systems, since all weather events are unique. The on-going El Nino in the Pacific Ocean undoubtedly contributed to Pali's formation, but how much it helped will be teased out by the scientific community in the years to come.  In case of Pali and Alex, which both formed in relatively remote areas, attribution of climate variability and change are made even more complicated by the lack of continuous observations prior to the satellite era.

The immediate focus from Alex and Pali shouldn't be the climate change versus climate variability discussion; the scientific community will parse that out in due time.  Rather, the initial takeaway from the January hurricanes should be that weather events don't see calendar dates or geopolitical boundaries.  These events can and will happen where conditions are favorable for them to do so.  Thus, individuals and communities must be aware and ready at all times for whatever Mother Nature throws their way.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Floods/storms

Location: Azores, Portugal


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