January 2016 has started with two significant and rare tropical storms both of which are out of season. These developments provide a clear indication of the need to maintain an ever constant eye on meteorological conditions, especially in terms of safe and optimum weather routing of voyages.
On 14 January, the North Atlantic saw the first hurricane form in the month of January since 1938 in the shape of hurricane Alex. In calendar terms, Alex is one of the earliest tropical systems to form in the Atlantic Hurricane Basin since records began, and it also formed very rapidly.
Hurricane Alex, 2016 (Credit: NOAA-NASA GOES Project)
The US National Hurricane Centre in Miami reports that there has not even been a hurricane present during the month of January since 1955, when Alice formed in late December 1954. Alex maintained hurricane status until 15 January and transitioned into an extra-tropical storm by 16 January as it hit the Azores Islands. Alex’s formation is linked more so to global warming than 2015’s El Niño and formed in waters 1-2 degrees Celsius warmer than normal. This temperature is still barely warm enough for the formation of a storm, but the process was fueled by colder than normal air above, which helped create greater instability than usual.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific Ocean tropical storm Pali formed on 31 Dec 2015, some 30 days after the official end of the Central Pacific Hurricane Season. Scientists believe the reason this storm formed out of season is due to a combination of high sea surface temperatures, linked to global warming, together with the resulting increased sea surface temperatures from El Niño .
Hurricane Pali (Credit: NOAA-NASA GOES Project)
While there have been rare occurrences in the past of a tropical storm being out of season in one ocean or another, it is significant that there has never been two tropical storms recorded out of season at the same time in one or more oceans. The key question here is whether the start to 2016 represents a more normal situation for the future, where an increased climate temperature coincides with El Niño years, or whether this the beginning of what global warming will start to deliver?
Irrespective of the reasons behind these two extraordinary storms, the cause for concern for mariners is great. If even the most certain of weather patterns can throw up such anomalies, it is clear that more attention is required to real time developments when weather routing than previously deemed necessary.
El Niño is a naturally occurring weather episode, which arises every two to seven years, where the warm waters of the Central Pacific expand eastwards towards North and South America. This periodic event, which tends to drive up global temperatures and disturb global weather patterns, has helped . The current El Nino episode is the strongest event since 1998, and is expected to be among the three most powerful ever recorded. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the peak three month average water surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific are expected to exceed 2 degrees Celsius above normal.
El Niño is set to exacerbate droughts in some areas, while increasing flooding in others. Elsewhere this may translate as colder winters in Europe (i.e. a more frozen Baltic Sea), stronger typhoons in the Pacific and more hurricanes in the Atlantic. Of note, El Niño are often followed by La Niña events, where a cooling of the ocean occurs, which can have opposite but similarly dramatic changes and effects.
Irrespective of the reasons behind these two extraordinary storms, the cause for concern for mariners is great. Safe weather routing of vessels across the world’s oceans relies in part on historical weather patterns to predict future developments. If even the most certain of weather patterns can throw up such anomalies, it is clear that more attention is required to real time developments when weather routing than previously deemed necessary. Just as geopolitical unrest and maritime crime arise without warning, so too can the threats from the untameable elements that surround us.
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