Market Overview

Hurricane Outlook May Change For The Worse As El Niño Fades

Hurricane Outlook May Change For The Worse As El Niño Fades

El Niño is weakening, but this isn't good for those wanting an uneventful hurricane season. El Niño – warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the central and eastern Pacific – is a primary atmospheric regulator of hurricane activity, and it typically suppresses the development of storms in the Atlantic basin. It's a potentially bad sign that El Niño is showing signs of fading just as the heart of hurricane season arrives.

The El Niño effect

A weakening El Niño in the coming months may lead to increased activity, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center (CPC). El Niño alters the atmospheric flow of winds around the world, resulting in high altitude wind shear, which hampers Atlantic tropical cyclone activity.

During El Niño, fewer hurricanes and major hurricanes (Category 3 or stronger) develop in the deep tropics from African easterly waves. NOAA officials said in early July that a transition from El Niño to a weaker neutral phase is expected in the next month or two and could last through fall and winter. The effect is so critical to hurricane patterns that NOAA's seasonal hurricane prediction puts a great amount of emphasis on the seesawing Pacific cycle.

Evolution of the 2019 hurricane season outlook. Source: Colorado State University

The latest outlooks from NOAA and Colorado State University's (CSU) Department of Atmospheric Science called for near-normal Atlantic hurricane activity due to predicted El Niño activity. CSU increased its predicted number of hurricanes and major hurricanes by just one since its original forecast in April. But if the El Niño effect ends sooner than expected, more hurricanes could develop from African easterly waves in the deep tropics during the months that are typically the busiest for the Atlantic season – August through October.

These systems potentially have a greater likelihood of becoming major hurricanes and of eventually threatening Caribbean islands and the U.S. The chances of a hurricane making landfall can increase substantially during a La Niña, or during a deteriorating El Niño like the one that has evidently just begun.

Impact on trucking and freight

Supply chain managers keep a close eye on changing hurricane season forecasts. One example is the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN). ALAN is an industry-wide organization that provides supply chain assistance to disaster relief organizations and other non-profits by connecting them to the expertise and resources of the logistics industry. ALAN's efforts help solve supply chain challenges immediately after disasters strike. Executive Director Kathy Fulton told FreightWaves that ALAN wants to be prepared to assist no matter what may happen.

"We are continually evaluating our abilities to respond to disruptive events, and always looking for partners that are willing to support that work," said Fulton. "So, while an uptick in the number of predicted storms [hurricanes] doesn't necessarily change our strategy, it does mean we'll ensure our partners along the Gulf and East Coast are aware, and encourage those who may not have worked with us previously to get involved."

When asked whether ALAN's resources would hold up if several significant hurricanes make landfall in the U.S., especially if they hit during a fairly short period of time, Fulton said this depends a lot on market conditions.

"Following the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires we were actively responding to disasters from late August through early spring 2018 – maybe the tightest transportation market we've ever seen. And still, businesses were willing to provide their services and expertise," Fulton stated. "I don't think we're in that same market position heading into this fall. Regardless, we're still investing in relationships with logistics organizations across the country. Not just asking them to commit to support, but encouraging them to be prepared so that commercial activities continue and ALAN can focus on the gaps."

Fulton added that ALAN's resources are really the resources of the whole community of logistics and supply chain professionals.

Current situation

SONAR Critical Events: Potential tropical development zone (gray-shaded area) as of July 24, 2019.

There's a disorganized cluster of storms in the northern Gulf of Mexico, but right now FreightWaves SONAR Critical Events shows only around a 20 percent chance of this developing into a significant tropical system, as shown in the map above.

The rest of the Atlantic basin is quiet, and only two named storms have developed so far – Andrea and Barry. The next name on the list is Chantal, and it ends with Wendy. Hopefully, we won't get that far down the list. But keep in mind that it's not always about the number of storms. The intensity and location of hurricanes are just as critical in determining the level of destruction they inflict.

Image sourced from Pixabay


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