2020 Hurricane predictions and what surfers need to know

You might not be planning on traveling anywhere in the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, but if you’re lucky enough to live near the coast, there’s some important information you need to know about the predictions for the 2020 hurricane season.

It’s been a record-breaking year so far, with the Atlantic season already revealing three tropical storms (Bertha, Cristobal, and Arthur). There’s a lot to look forward to, too – particularly if you like to surf. 

Here’s what you need to know about the 2020 hurricane season predictions. 

What Has Happened So Far

Before the middle of May,  two tropical storms had already formed off the coast of the southeastern United States, both of which produced exceptional amounts of surf. This was only the third time in the last 65 years that two storms were named this early in the season. Both Arthur and Bertha produced notable waves for surf-lovers.

The record was broken before this in 2012 and 2016. 

Then, in early June of 2020, Tropical Storm Cristobal formed and ultimately impacted much of Central America, southern Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and the Midwest, becoming the third named storm of 2020. 

What Do Forecasting Models Tell Us About the Upcoming Season?

According to NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, there is a forecasted 60% chance of an “above-normal” season. 

What does this mean?

The average hurricane season extends from June 1 to November 30. An above-average year is one that sees increased levels of hurricanes or hurricane-related activity, while one that is below-normal will see much less. 

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center believes there will be at least 13 to 19 named storms. To qualify as a named storm, a storm must have winds of 39 miles per hour or more. Of these 13 to 19 named storms, six to ten could become hurricanes with winds of 74 miles per hour. About half of those are expected to be major hurricanes (category 3, 4, or 5, with winds exceeding 111 miles per hour). 

If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, consider the fact that the average hurricane season produces only 12 named storms, of which six become hurricanes (three of which are considered major).

Why so much activity? NOAA and other scientific organizations say that warmer-than-average waters in key portions of the Atlantic Ocean (which provide fuel for major storms) along with favorable upper-level winds in the tropics during the peak season could be to blame.

Another indicator that it’s going to be a bumpy ride is the fact that Africa experienced a strong monsoon season. Often, tropical waves moving off Africa are fodder for potential storms and can then become Cabo Verde storms.

Then, of course, there’s the absence of El Nino and a trend toward La Nina. El Nino conditions usually suppress Atlantic tropical activity while La Nina conditions usually connect to increased amounts of tropical activity. 

In short, it’s going to be a busy 2020 hurricane season!

What Areas Will See the Most Activity – and When?

As is normal, the Gulf of Mexico and the northwest Caribbean region will be the primary focus when it comes to hurricane development and surf action. You’ll see the most activity here in the early- to midsummer months. 

There’s also an increased likelihood of the United States and the Caribbean receiving a major landfalling hurricane this year, according to Colorado State’s Tropical Meteorology Group. 

Plenty of tropical moisture and warm sea temperatures will breed tropical storms quickly and effectively in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean region. Although July might start off more slowly in the tropics, the month will probably become more active as the month ends and moves into August. 

Things may slow down a bit during the hottest days of summer, though hurricane activity over the Gulf of Mexico is expected to continue. 

However, from the end of August until mid-October, things will get more active as tropical waves from Africa head west and produce activity in the Atlantic. Some meteorologists predict that large, powerful hurricanes will track north over the Caribbean islands before curving back over the open Atlantic, sending waves slamming back toward the East Coast. If the storm tracks west, though, it could deprive the east coast of any notable waves. 

All in all, scientists at the Colorado State University Department of Atmospheric Science believe that the 2020 Atlantic basin will have above-average hurricane activity, with a 69% chance that at least one of these major storms will make landfall in the United States. 

The hurricane season began on June 1 and could last until November 30. The names for this year’s storms include Arthur, Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, Isaias, Josephine, Kyle, Laura, Marco, Nana, Omar, Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy, Vicky, and Wilfred. 

Sorry West Coasters – you don’t have a great outlook. That’s not unusual, though. The likelihood of a hurricane hitting here is slim to none in the best of years, since the trajectory normally takes hurricanes to Mexico or out into the sea. If you live in southern California, though, you can look forward to summer hurricane swells at south-facing breaks as well as the right-hand point breaks of Baja. 

What Does the La Niña Climate Pattern Mean for This Year’s Hurricane Season?

Forecasters have announced that El Nino is not likely to form this year, which spells lots of activity for the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. 

El Nino is a warming of seawater that naturally occurs in the tropical Pacific Ocean. When El Nino occurs, there is usually less hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and the Atlantic. It increases upper-level westerly winds across the Caribbean into the tropical Atlantic, tearing hurricanes apart. 

La Nina, on the other hand, is marked by cooler-than-average seawater in the Pacific, which increases tropical activity in the Atlantic. 

Interestingly, forecasters have said that this year, the water in the Pacific is either unusually warm or unusually cool. It is, therefore “ENSO-neutral.” ENSO stands for El Nino-Southern Oscillation and is the term for the entire climate pattern that includes La Nina and El Nino.

Best Forecasting and Tracking Tools to Use

Keeping an eye on the progression of tropical storms and hurricanes is smart, but especially so if you are a surfer. In the past, you had to listen to shipping forecasts or study surface pressure charts – something most people wouldn’t want to do. Later, in the 80s and 90s, there were surf telephone lines you could call with surf reports recorded from around the country. 

Today, though, the Internet does it all for us. Now, you can find accurate wave forecasts down to the minute for just about every surf destination in the new world. These are usually uploaded several days in advance to help you plan your surf. 

There are several resources you can use to help you monitor these storms as they form and move across the coast. 

HurricaneTrak

HurricaneTrak by Surfline allows you to track hurricanes as they move across the Atlantic, Pacific, for any other ocean basin. With this program, you’ll learn how to track storms and compare them to classic swell-producing storms to see how they match up.  

With HurricaneTrack, you will get access to all of the latest updates along with helpful tracking tools and historic archives. You’ll be able to use the storm and swell ruler, too, to help you track a storm. 

Magicseaweed

Magicseaweed offers ocean buoy readings, detailed long-range forecasting, hurricane tracks, videos, photos, direct beach reports, live winds, and more. This website will give you surf information for destinations all over the globe. 

Windfinder

Windfinder is a website designed not just for surfers, but also for sailors, windsurfers, kitesurfers, paragliders, and other hobbyists who rely on – as you might guess – the wind. You’ll find waves, wind, weather, webcams, tides, and more all in one handy, easy to navigate website. 

Swellnet

Swellnet is an older website, founded in 1998 as a fax and email service. Today, Swellnet offers forecasts for all over the world. 

Surf-Forecast

Surf-Forecast will give you detailed surf reports and forecasts for more than 7,000 of the world’s top surf spots. You’ll get wave maps, wind maps, email surf alerts, and wind alert systems, too. 

MSW Surf Forecast

A free app for both Android and iPhone, MSW Surf Forecast was recently updated and uses your exact location to provide current, updated surf conditions. It will give you information for more than 2,500 beaches around the world – there’s a good chance that your surf destination will be on the list. 

NOAA

The best of the best, and also the most basic and reliable resource if you’re looking for detailed weather information. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, offers all kinds of forecasting data to help you make the most of your surf plans.

How to Track and Read the Swell Forecasts for Surfing

The first hurricane wave models were developed in the 1950s and were based on measurements of significant wave period and height. Later on, starting in the 1990s, computer modeling made it easier for scientists to predict ocean waves and winds.

The best way to figure out whether a storm will be good for surfing is to read the storm. If you see a storm developing, the first thing you need to do is figure out where it’s located in terms of its latitudinal and longitudinal readings. You also need to determine how hard the winds are blowing, and in what speed and direction.

You can find this information with a quick Google search, or by using one of the tools or websites above. 

Generally, the best surf from hurricanes comes from storms that are large with high wind speeds, ideally those that are headed directly toward you with no obstructions to block the swell. However, if a storm is not headed for you, it can still send waves your way. 

Remember that, in the Northern Hemisphere, hurricanes spin counter-clockwise. The dominant swell and wind from Northern Hemisphere hurricanes come from the side of it to the right of its direction of movement. Usually, hurricane swells travel in the same direction as the movement of the storm, but slow-moving or stationary hurricanes can send swells every which way.

Keep in mind, too, that swells decline rapidly in intensity as they travel longer distances from the origin of the storm. The longer and stronger a storm is, the bigger the swell is and the faster it will move, too. 

The speed and direction of movement play a role in how well a storm generates waves, too. Hurricanes generate the most wind and waves in the direction they are moving. In the Northern Hemisphere, for instance, the northeast quadrants will have the strongest winds – but the southeast quadrant will produce the best swells. 

Why? It’s simple. The winds have more time to spend on making the waves larger. 

The best swell is found when a storm is moving into the “swell window” for your specific stretch of coast. You’ll want to keep an eye out for a large tract of open ocean with no obstacles (ie, land) between it and you. When it moves into your swell window, good times are on the way! 

Tips for Surfing

Ready to get out there to experience those epic swells? Follow these tips for the best day of surfing yet. 

Watch the Forecasts

The simplest thing you can do is be prepared when it comes to hurricanes and hurricane surfing conditions. Use one of the websites or apps we told you about to help you get detailed, accurate information – and check back frequently so that you can act quickly as soon as the conditions are right.

Don’t feel the need to go with your gut – you aren’t the Storm Whisperer. Sure, there is such a thing as intuition, but remember that there are professionals out there who are specifically trained to share and track storms. They know what to look for!

That’s not to say you can’t do some observation on your own to determine when it’s going to be the best time to search. Head down to the coast and observe the waves. Know what to look for and watch those swells like it’s your job!

Pick the Right Spot

Figure out where exactly you need to be to enjoy some epic surfing. The best areas tend to be those with some wind shelter as well as some man-made or sea bottom structures that can help the surf. 

Surf Within Your Abilities

This is good advice for surfing in general, but if you’re planning on heading out to experience hurricane swell, make sure you’re prepared and physically up to the challenge. 

Hurricane surf is large and dangerous, and there’s no reason why you should make today the day you test your limits. Remember that steady situations offshore can change rapidly, becoming the stuff of nightmares in a matter of seconds when you’re out there on the water.

Your swimming, paddling, and overall stamina need to be in tiptop shape if you plan on surfing in these conditions. You also need to know how to get out of rip currents, as these are more common in hurricane conditions. 

There are plenty of exercises you can do to get into shape. After all, hurricanes are an athletic endeavor that requires some preparation and a level of physical endurance. Try to get in shape before the season starts by doing exercises like ring chin-ups, front squats, pushups, mobility drills, and dynamic lunges. 

Here are some other workouts you can do to improve your fitness prior to enjoying those swells. 

Keep Your Gear in Good Condition

Now is not the time to head out there with a ramshackle board. You need to make sure your equipment is in good shape so you don’t have to worry about last-minute repairs. These surf conditions don’t come around every day, so make sure you’re ready to enjoy them when they do. 

Choose a board that’s appropriate for the conditions and is sturdily built, too.

Know When It’s Just Too Dangerous

Although seeing a hurricane on the forecast is enough to produce jittery bursts of excitement even for the most experienced surfer, sometimes, you’re going to have to throw in the towel and call it a day. Sometimes, it is simply too dangerous for you to get out there and enjoy a hurricane swell.

Hurricanes sometimes come in too fast, too strong, and too dangerous to make a day on the water worth the risk. If you’re new to surfing or simply don’t know what to expect from hurricane conditions, be sure to talk to somebody with a bit more experience – ideally, somebody who has some local knowledge of hurricane surf and can give you a good idea of what to expect. 

Remember, the summer and corresponding hurricane season doesn’t always present the best time to be a surfer, either. Yes, the sun is out and the water is warmer, but the beaches are crowded and the waves might not be as predictable.

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