The Hurricane Forecast Keeps Getting Darker

The latest puts the chances at 62% that a major hurricane will make landfall in the continental U.S. this year, 1.5 times the normal likelihood. 


As we near the June 1 official start to the Atlantic hurricane season, we seem to be facing the worst of both worlds. 

We've been in an El Niño weather pattern for almost a year, which leads to warmer waters off the west coast of Africa, where hurricanes form, and in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf waters where they gather strength. The waters have already reached temperatures that they usually doesn't hit until August and will only get hotter from here. 

The good side of El Niño is that it tends to disrupt the winds that coalesce into the tropical storms that can become hurricanes... but we're moving into a La Niña pattern, which lacks the storm-preventing tendencies of El Niño. 

So we're looking at all the heat energy provided by El Niño but none of its protection from hurricanes.

In advance of this week's official forecast from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the June 11 update from Colorado State University (CSU), Phil Klotzbach, a senior research scientist at CSU, laid out how very bad the outlook is.

We've suspected for some time that this hurricane season would be bad. (Here is what I wrote back in February.) But now the predictions are moving well past suspicions. "We’re very confident this year we’re going to see well above normal hurricane activity," according to Klotzbach, a non-resident scholar at the Triple-I, a sister organization of ours at The Institutes. 

He predicts:

  • 23 tropical cyclones in the Atlantic basin for the 2024 hurricane season, vs. an annual average of 14.
  • 11 of those storms becoming hurricanes, vs. the average of seven.
  • five becoming major hurricanes (categories 3, 4 or 5) vs. the average of three. 
  • a 62% chance of a major hurricane making landfall in the continental U.S., vs. the historical average, from 1880 to 2020, of 43%.
  • 34% chance for a major hurricane striking the U.S. East Coast, including the Florida Peninsula (vs. the 21% historical average).

[Editor's note: The last two bullet points have been updated since this post went live Tuesday morning, the 21st, because the original information, based on an article in Insurance Journal, was inaccurate and greatly overstated the danger to Florida. The summary for this article has likewise been updated. I regret the error.]

Meanwhile, the news of other climate-related catastrophes continues to hit my inbox daily.

Here is Global News, with the headline, "Canada's Extreme Weather Events Are Costing Billions, New Data Shows": 

"From 1983 to 2008, insurance companies in the country spent about $400 million on average annually on catastrophic claims, but since 2009 that number has rise to almost $2 billion. Recent hurricanes, floods and historical wildfires saw that number balloon to $3.4 billion in 2022 and $3.1 billion last year — 50% more than the yearly average."

Here is Grist, via Gizmodo, on "How 'Kitty Cats Are Wrecking the Home Insurance Industry':

"'Severe-convective storms' are large and powerful thunderstorms that form and disappear within a few hours or days, often spinning off hail storms and tornadoes as they shoot across the flat expanses of the central United States. The insurance industry refers to these storms as 'secondary perils'—the other term of art is 'kitty cats,' a reference to their being smaller than big natural catastrophes or 'nat cats.'

"But the damage from these secondary perils has begun to add up. Losses from severe convective storms increased by about 9 percent every year between 1989 and 2022, according to the insurance firm Aon. Last year these storms caused more than $50 billion in insured losses combined—about as much as 2022’s massive Hurricane Ian. No single storm event caused more than a few billion dollars of damage, but together they were more expensive than most big disasters."

One such storm hammered Houston last week, according to Bloomberg:

"Power was out for almost 700,000 customers in the Houston area after an intense storm swept through the area with winds in excess of 75mph (120km/h), downing trees, blowing out windows and leaving at least four dead. Economic losses and damages could be between $5 billion and $7 billion, according to an initial AccuWeather estimate.

"The trail of destruction is the result of what’s known as straight-line winds, fierce gusts that can rival their more familiar siblings, tornadoes. The atmosphere has been primed to unleash all types of violent weather this spring across the central and southern U.S.... 'It seems like we cannot go a day without there being some sort of severe weather,' said John Feerick, a meteorologist at AccuWeather. 'It has been active, and it looks like it will stay fairly active.'”

The Washington Post weighs in with a long article about how sea levels are rising in the American South: 

"At more than a dozen tide gauges spanning from Texas to North Carolina, sea levels are at least six inches higher than they were in 2010 — a change similar to what occurred over the previous five decades."

And Carrier Management cautions: "Catastrophe Bonds Use Models Underestimating Climate Risks, Investors Say." Swiss Re says the $15 billion in cat bonds issued last year played a big role in stabilizing the reinsurance market, so if models turn out to be too optimistic and investors flee the market there could be significant disruption.

About the only good news I've heard recently on climate threats came in a conversation I had with Gabriela Dominguez, president of Avante-Nea Insurance Group in Miami, about the chaos that is the South Florida P&C market. If you read the interview, you won't see much that feels like good news as she describes crazy-busy carriers using major premium increases to push clients to retrofit their homes and businesses to better withstand storms. Especially if you're an agent or broker, you'll feel her pain. But this exchange could signal the start of something important:

Me: "I’ve hoped that insurance premiums would send strong enough signals that policyholders would make their homes more resilient. It sounds like that may be happening."

Gaby Dominquez: "People are doing it. It's either that or lose your coverage, and if you have a mortgage, the force-placed insurance is three times more than the quote that I'm going to give you, which is already expensive."

She added that "the state is providing assistance through different programs that help people replace the roof, get a new AC, install impact windows and so on."

While I'd love to think that we'll get lucky with this hurricane season and that severe convective storms, wildfires and rising sea levels will fade as problems, I'm not counting on it. And the sort of approach, however painful, that Gaby describes--strong price signals from insurers, with some government assistance to ease the transition to greater resilience--feels like a reasonable way to begin what will be a long journey for all of us.