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How to Avoid the Pitfalls of a Hurricane Season Forecast

Hurricanes can be deadly, destructive – yet difficult to understand.  And they happen every year, irrespective of what a pre-season forecast says.

Meteorologists and emergency managers often use the phrase “it only takes one” to dissuade the public from basing preparation on prior storm experience or pre-season forecasts. The same could be said for business owners and insurers: It ‘only takes one’ bad storm to put you out of business or blow your claims budget.

One pitfall of a hurricane season forecast is that the cost to insurers is not related to the number of Atlantic storms.
The CPI-adjusted cost of hurricanes (in Billions) is not strongly related to the number of storms that form in any given year in the Atlantic basin.

While preseason hurricane forecasts can provide valuable high-level insights, there are many pitfalls to relying on them for critical business decisions. Or even worse, delaying those decisions.

Know What the Numbers Mean

Above-normal hurricane activity is expected again this year in the Atlantic Basin, according to many reputable forecast agencies. The average prediction is 19 named storms and eight hurricanes. The 30-year running average for the Atlantic is around 12 named storms and just over six hurricanes.

The most significant contributing factor to more activity in the tropical Atlantic basin is the presence of a weak La Niña, which is the cooling of the equatorial Pacific waters. This pattern often correlates to weaker winds aloft over the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, making atmospheric conditions more favorable for hurricane maturation. Sea surface temperatures in these parts of the Atlantic and Caribbean are also trending above average, providing more fuel for storms to form. 

However, the science lends little credence to the idea that a pre-season forecast can determine which population centers or coastlines will be targeted in any given year. Nevertheless, landfall probabilities will naturally ebb and flow with the overall tropical storm projections. For example, Colorado State scientists say there is a 71% chance a major hurricane will make landfall along the U.S. coastline this year, whereas the average probability over the last century is 52%.

Recognize Storms are Getting Costlier

Hurricanes have already been the deadliest and costliest natural disaster in the United States over the past four decades. Budgeting for the impact a hurricane may have isn’t easy. But we know the numbers aren’t going down.

Dynamics drive a storm’s cost on a much deeper scale than a seasonal forecast. Hurricanes are rapidly intensifying more often now due to climate change, which can magnify the impacts while providing less time to prepare. Feverish coastal population growth is putting more people and businesses in harm’s way, causing a rise in indirect impacts (or “spillover effects”).  And repair costs are skyrocketing.  

The key to avoiding costly surprises is consistency. A response plan should be tailored to the individual impacts a storm can make on your bottom line. It should be considered for all exposure locations every year, regardless of what the pre-season prognosticators say.

Prepare for Impacts, Not a Forecast

A large total of tropical storms or hurricanes does not necessarily mean it will be a bad year in terms of U.S. landfalls. The impact any given storm makes is related to its precise track, strength, and motion. However, these parameters are difficult to predict five days out, much less months in advance.

The correlation between the number of hurricanes that form and those that affect land is weak (or unpredictable). For example, there have been five seasons with above-normal hurricane activity and no U.S. impact. Conversely, major hurricanes have come ashore during relatively quiet years several times.

Two memorable examples of the latter are hurricanes Alicia and Andrew. Alicia devasted Houston as a Category 3 storm in 1983, which turned out to be the least active season in history. Similarly, South Florida was battered by Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992, during a year when only seven storms formed. Conversely, there have been no U.S. landfalls during some of the most hyperactive seasons in history, such as in 2010, when 12 hurricanes came and went.

Steer Clear of the Noise

No two hurricanes are alike. They appear that way when you only read headlines or look to the flood of social media for answers. Staying prepared year in and year out can help you achieve peace of mind and avoid making a costly reactionary decision.

The next hurricane to respond to is not a matter of if but when.  Focusing less on a 6-month forecast and more on impact-specific vulnerabilities can better position your resources for the unexpected.

Hurricanes are complex. The logistics of loss avoidance, mitigation, and response are even more complicated. Tracking a cone of uncertainty and waiting on a warning often doesn’t cut it. Investments in weather monitoring tools such as historical analysis of weather perils or near-term forecasts can enable you to accurately track a storm’s growth or decay closer to landfall. And knowing when to pull the trigger on response requires precise data, actionable insights, and expert analysis.

Let an expert empower you to make better decisions.