Damage Report 2005: Breaking Down The Most Active Hurricane Season In Recorded History

Just as this interview was completed, Tropical {{{Storm}}} Epsilon arrived taking the total of named storms to 26.Phil Klotzbach, new lead researcher for {{{Colorado}}} State's Tropical Meteorology Project, breaks down the most active hurricane season in recorded history

So you think Gamma and Beta didn't do any damage?Tell that to Phil Klotzbach. Those pesky little gusts almost destroyed his Thanksgiving. As we spoke to him in mid-November, the 25 year-old research associate was furiously scribbling his 2005 season report to make a November 18 deadline, hoping to enjoy the holiday in peace. As he put it, "I've written 23 storm analyses since June. I'm ready for a break." Of course, Klotzbach shoulda known this was not the friggin' season to bet things would slow down. By July, it was already the tropics' busiest year since they started keeping score. Come October, when Hurricane Wilma first wound up, 2005 officially tied the benchmark of 21 named storms set back in 1933, exhausting the hurricane center of names, and forcing them to enlist the Greek Alphabet when storms Alpha and Beta sprang up the following week and officially decimated the history books. With the sea cooling down for the late fall, it seemed like the perfect time for a scientist to get to work and go home for the holidays. Then Gamma and Delta popped in, serving up two more tropical helpings before Klotzbach could finish his first round of stuffing. So was Phil pissed? "Not really," responds the scientist. "I love this work. Can't get enough of it really. Besides, I kind of saw it coming."

It's just that attitude and skill that's earned Klotzbach the title of lead author of Colorado State's Tropical Meteorology Project, the only research group dedicated to long-term tropical prediction. Since 1984, Dr. William Gray has been the frontman for this scientific endeavor, issuing annual predictions and frequent updates in an effort to learn more about these nature's most deadly storms. Now, though Gray will continue to work beside his young pupil, it's Klotzbach's turn to take the reigns and steer the science. Said Dr. Gray in this year's final analysis, "After 22 years, it is appropriate that I step back and have Phil Klotzbach assume the primary responsibility for our project's seasonal, monthly and landfall probability forecasts. Phil has been a member of my research project for the last five years. He is now devoting more time to the improvement of these forecasts than I am [as I give] more of my efforts to the global warming issue and in synthesizing my projects' many years of hurricane and typhoon studies."

In honor of Klotzbach's new role, we decided to get the 2005 damage report, straight from the new face of tropical prediction.

SURFINGTHEMAG.COM: Why was 2005 so much crazier than years past?

PHIL KLOTZBACH: Well, it was obviously a very active season. One of the most active we've had. But again a lot of the seasons we've had since 1995 have been very active. The difference is the last two years we've had a ridge of high pressure along the East Coast of the United States, and that's very bad when it comes to landfalling storms because it basically pushes them into us. From 1995 to 2002 we had whole messload of major hurricanes, but because there was an upper level trough along the East Coast, it picked them up and moved them out to sea. So this year was the combination of being very active and a bad scenario for landfall. Just to give you an idea for numbers, from 1995 to 2003, we had 32 major hurricanes – that's category 3 to 5 – and only 3 of those made landfall. Which is like 9 percent. In the last two years we've had 13 major hurricanes, and seven of them made landfall, which is more than 50 percent.

But with 25 named storms (This number does not account for Epsilon), wasn't this the most active season ever? The most recent year to touch that was 19 in 1995 right?

And they had 21 back in 1933. But I guess the difference is when you try and gauge activity, looking at the number of named storms is kind of misleading. Because you can get a year like 2002 where we had an above average number of named storms but they were all pretty weak. So what we look at is more how long the storms last, especially the major storms. If you have a lot of long-lived major hurricanes that's more of an idea of how active it really is as opposed to the number of named storms. But obviously, for most people, that's the easiest way to look at it. Still, this season was active no matter how you look at it.

How many records were broken total?

Well, we had the most storms we've ever had with 25. We had the most hurricanes we've had with 13. And we've had the most major hurricanes – that's Category 3 to 5 storms — with 7. That's the largest since 1950. And we also use an aggregate percentage that takes into account how many storms there are, how intense they are, and how long they last. We call that Net Tropical Cyclone activity. This year’s NTC was 255%. And that number's the highest ever. A typical season from 1950-2000 averaged {{{100}}}%. So it was quite the active season. (These numbers also, do not account for Epsilon)

Could it be Global Warming?

No, we don't think so. Global warming implies seeing increased activity everywhere, and if you look at the Eastern Pacific it's been pretty dead the past couple of years. Yes warmer ocean temperatures do, on a year-to-year basis, help storm activity. But when you're talking about global warming, you don't just talk about the surface you also warm the upper atmosphere. If the upper troposphere warms a lot more than the surface, it could actually make lapse rates — the temperature gradient in the atmosphere, which determines how fast the warm air rises — somewhat less and inhibit development of strong hurricanes. But this is still a very open question.

But weren't sea surface temps in the Caribbean 2 degrees warmer this year which is why Wilma intensified so quickly?

Yes, Wilma went really fast. The pressure on Wilma dropped 98 millibars in 24 hours, which is the second most intense pressure drop than they've recorded anywhere in the globe. (The first one was Super Typhoon Forrest in the West Pacific, which dropped 101 mb in 24 hours during September 1983, and West Pac is the best place on the globe for big storms.) But also Wilma was a function of how small the eye was. Her eye was only two to three miles across, and that helped the pressure fall out of really fast.

What other records did Wilma set?

Well Wilma had the lowest central pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic when it dropped to 882 mb. (The lowest pressure ever recorded around the globe was another West Pac storm, Supertyphoon Tip in 1979, with a pressure of 870 mb.) But central pressure is also a function of how small the eye size is so in terms of actual power and energy of the storm it wasn't as great as a bigger storm with higher pressure. It would've been better for here to make land fall as a Cat 5 with a really tight eye then it did when it expanded because the area of damage would've been a lot smaller. Generally, you're better off with a really small and intense hurricane then one that's much wider.

Did Katrina and Rita set records as well?

Katrina, Rita and Wilma all had wind speeds of 150 knots — about 175 mph – which is high, but I believe others in the past have recorded higher. Katrina was the most destructive storm in the Atlantic on record. Estimated damage from this system is at least $50 billion dollars in insured damage and over $100 billion dollars in total damage. Rita had the 3rd lowest pressure ever recorded in the Atlantic up to that point when it dropped to 897 mb. The only lower pressures recorded were Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 with 888 mb and the Labor Day Storm of 1935 with 892 mb. But Wilma pushed Rita to 4th place on the list when its pressure dropped to 882 mb.

Florida's been hit 9 times in the past two seasons – 10 if you count Ivan last year, which technically came ashore in Alabama. Katrina's the worst storm in US history. If there's a running theme to Dr. Gray's reports, it's, "We've been lucky, the big one's coming." Do you think this is the year that the damage that could've happened, finally did?

Yeah, but you have to remember with Katrina, there was a lot of flooding from the levees breaking. Places in Florida probably would've fared better. But I think there's obviously been a major swing in the perception of hurricane season. You see it more on TV. I've heard more people talking about it in the grocery store than ever before – and I live in Colorado. People are definitely thinking about it more, and are hopefully more informed and more prepared.

Do you think it takes a big US hit like Katrina to wake people up? Mitch decimated Central America and killed thousands a few years back and no one seemed to notice.

Yeah, I think so. If you had told me last year that thousands of people could die in the US from a hurricane, I never really thought that was possible. I think it takes that type of situation. Even when you have {{{300}}},000 dying in Bangladesh from a tropical cyclone back in the 70s, it kind of has to happen in the US for people to take notice. Sad as that is.

So is this a sign of things to come? Is it an anomaly?

That’s the million-dollar question. Like I said, since 1995 we've been in a very active period for storms. And the 70s to the middle 90s were very inactive. These periods tend to last about 25-30 years or so, which means the next decade or so will probably stay pretty active. But it is unlikely that we will have seasons like 2004 and 2005 wherein we have such a strong combination of super-active seasons and steering currents that push these storms westward across the United States coastline.

But for a waning trend, we're looking about 15 years out.Probably. Most likely.

If that's the case, what more can be done to diminish damage? Do you guys look at that or is it more your job to forecast probability and someone else needs to worry about he repercussions?

Pretty much our suggestion is build smart, build strong. I know there have been various ways theorized to stop these systems, but those either have been tried and didn't work or really aren't feasible. Or would probably make things worse. [laughs]

Would artificial reefs be an option in terms of storm surge?

I've heard people talk about it as a possibility. Our coasts' barrier islands are definitely critical for stopping surge. And in Louisiana over the last 100 years the barrier islands have been torn apart so there's not so much of a barrier as years' past. So obviously those barrier islands are very critical. But as to the engineering challenges of artificial reefs, I can't really speak to.

Nobody wants to see another catastrophic season. But does a year like this at least make your job any easier in terms of emphasizing danger?

Well, in that regard, yeah. After years of people not really caring, we almost have to calm them down. For the longest time we were jumping up and down screaming, "The storms are coming, the storms are coming!" Now we have to calm people down and say, 'Okay, not every year will be like this last one. Don't everybody panic."