The year 2020 was truly an annus horribilis for many, many reasons. It was the year that brought a global pandemic with its attendant economic and mental health crises, record-breaking fires in Australia and the western US, painful racial justice reckoning, a traumatic election year in the US, an exacerbation of climate-related natural disasters, and armed conflicts around the world. In keeping with this slate of death and horror, the 2020 hurricane season claimed its place as the very worst in recorded history.
At the very beginning of the 2020 hurricane season, a hyperactive year was predicted by meteorologists. There was talk that the number and intensity of this year's hurricanes could even approach that of the most dreadful year in history: 2005, the year of the notorious Hurricane Katrina. Luckily, no hurricane that struck the US was able to equal that monstrous storm; however, the year nevertheless closed out by smashing a number of records.
In order to grasp the outrageous scale of this record-breaking storm season, let's first take a look at the so-called ‘named storms'. Storms are named when the winds associated with the tempest reach a velocity of 39 mph, and they retain the same name even if they morph into a major hurricane with winds up to 200 mph. Storms are named in order to simplify global communications regarding the movement and development of the storm. During an average year, there are 12 named storms. In April of 2020, meteorologists warned that we would be in for an active Atlantic season with at least 16 named storms. In June, that prediction was adjusted to 19 storms. By the end of November when the Atlantic hurricane season ended, there had been 30 named storms!
The list of 30 named storms that had occurred during the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season as of November 24, 2020. The 2020 season surpassed 2005 as the busiest on record. The season officially ended November 30. (NOAA)
With so many storms in a single year, the slate of 21 proper names was completely used up by September 18th, when Tropical Storm Wilfred strengthened from a low-key tropical wave into a proper storm with gale-force winds. Although Wilfred never developed into a major storm, it was nevertheless significant in that we had now exhausted all the designated storm names for the season, and would be tapping into the Greek alphabet names. This was just the second time in hurricane-tracking history that the Greek names had been utilized- the previous year having been 2005.
Mid-September is very early in the season to run out of proper storm names! This leaves 10 full weeks of hurricane season still to come, and 2020 filled those ten weeks with nine more named storms- almost one per week. In doing so, the year closed out with a record-breaking total of 30 named storms, smashing the previous record of 28 named storms set in 2005. Of these 30 named storms, 12 managed to make landfall in the United States.
These 12 storms, while nowhere close to wreaking the damage and expense of a storm like Hurricane Katrina, were still extremely unwelcome during this particular year. In 2020, these storms coincided with a global pandemic that was already a disaster of epic proportions. The aims of protecting the populace from the storms and protecting the same populace from the novel coronavirus were in direct opposition to each other. Evacuation of vulnerable coastal residents required that affected individuals be housed together in often cramped shelters, in tight quarters with no chance of the social distancing that can reduce disease transmission. Now, as this horrible year draws to a close, it is a great relief that none of the 12 major storms to strike the US packed the power of a Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, 2020 was still a year of unrelenting disaster, and the fact that it also smashed records for named storms is somehow horribly fitting.