It’s late June, still early meteorological summer for much of North America, and we are faced with two items that warrant extra attention.
First, sea surface temperatures (SSTs) last month averaged over all ice-free waters, were the highest ever recorded for the month of May. Second, Tropical Storm Bret, which alarmingly formed very early for the season in the tropical Atlantic Ocean’s main development area (the waters between West Africa and the Windward and Leeward Islands along the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea), is poised to strike in the southern Windwards. And there was another system forming behind it. Bret formed farther south and east than any June system on record since 1853.
In short, the world’s oceans are continuing their steady, long-term warming trend, which means more heat is available earlier (and later) in hurricane season to aid in the development of any system that might form when atmospheric conditions are conducive to it. Once formed, that additional heat can then be used by the system to get stronger faster than it otherwise would. Over the last decade, there have been more and more rapidly intensifying tropical cyclones. This trend is likely to continue as SSTs continue to creep upwards.
Currently, the science is still in its infancy and the ability of forecasters to accurately predict when (or if) and where a tropical system might intensify is relatively poor. This means that the risks in general are higher for all vessels, but particularly for slow-moving vessels like tugs. A similar system that intensified rapidly, Hurricane Joaquin, sank the SS El Faro with all hands in 2015.
In 1998 Category 5 Hurricane Mitch, which turned out to be a particularly difficult storm to forecast due to weak atmospheric steering currents, drifted and wobbled its way across the western Caribbean Sea, resulting in tragedy for the schooner Fantome.
If you want to read a well-written account of how a captain can make pretty much all the right decisions given the information at hand and still come up short, then read Jim Carrier’s “The Ship and the Storm: Hurricane Mitch and the Loss of the Fantome.”
Be careful out there.