The U.S. coast is in an unprecedented hurricane drought, why this is terrifying

Hurricanes, large and small, have eluded U.S. shores for record lengths of time. As population and wealth along parts of the U.S. coast have exploded since the last stormy period, experts dread the potential damage and harm once the drought ends.

Three historically unprecedented droughts in landfalling U.S. hurricanes are presently active.

A major hurricane hasn’t hit the U.S. Gulf or East Coast in more than a decade. A major hurricane is one containing maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph and classified as Category 3 or higher on the 1-5 Saffir-Simpson wind scale. (Hurricane Sandy had transitioned to a post tropical storm when it struck New Jersey in 2012, and was no longer classified as a hurricane at landfall, though it had winds equivalent to a Category 1 storm.) The streak has reached 3,937 days, longer than any previous drought by nearly two years.


(Brian McNoldy)
Twenty-seven major hurricanes have occurred in the Atlantic Ocean basin since the last one, Wilma, struck Florida in 2005. The odds of this are 1 in 2,300, according to Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher from Colorado State University.

Florida hasn’t seen a hurricane of any intensity since 2005’s Wilma, which is shocking considering it averages about seven hurricane landfalls per decade. The current drought in the Sunshine State, nearing 11 years, is almost twice as long as the previous longest drought of six years (from 1979-1985).


(Brian McNoldy)
Sixty-seven hurricanes have tracked through the Atlantic since Florida’s last hurricane impact. The odds of this are about 1 in 550, Klotzbach said.

Even the entire Gulf of Mexico, and its sprawling coast from Florida to Texas, have been hurricane-free for almost three full years, the longest period since record-keeping began 165 years ago (in 1851). The last hurricane to traverse the Gulf waters was Ingrid, which made landfall in Mexico as a tropical storm, in September 2013.

Scientists have no solid explanation for the lack of hurricane landfalls. The number of storms forming in the Atlantic over the past decade or so has been close to normal, but many have remained over the ocean or hit other countries rather than the United States.
A study published by the American Geophysical Union in 2015 said the lack of major hurricane landfalls boiled down to dumb luck rather than a particular weather pattern. “I don’t believe there is a major regime shift that’s protecting the U.S.,” said study lead author Timothy Hall from NASA.

[What’s driving our major hurricane landfall drought? Study says it’s just dumb luck.]

A “recurring” area of low pressure near the U.S. East Coast in recent years may have repelled some storms, argue Klotzbach and Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. But McNoldy still says “luck is really 99 percent of it [the drought].”

[Recurring East Coast low pressure may be saving U.S. from major hurricanes]

Adam Sobel, a climate scientist at Columbia University, cautions that the drought in no way invalidates global warming predictions or the expectation that storms will grow more intense in future decades. The “notion that the hurricane drought in the Atlantic has somehow disproved the consensus projections of climate science is wrong, because the drought is still a relatively short-term fluctuation in a single basin, while the projections are for long-term global trends,” he writes on his blog.

And as impressively long as the various droughts are, McNoldy said there have been numerous storms that have almost ended each of them in recent years.

So the drought is hanging on by a thread. A single major hurricane striking Florida’s Gulf Coast, McNoldy said, would break all three standing droughts simultaneously.

Concerns about preparedness and increasing coastal population

It’s only a matter of time before the luck reverses and storms start bombarding the U.S. coast again.

Growing coastal populations and lack of recent hurricane activity, from Florida to Texas, raise concerns about the nation’s readiness.

“Hurricanes are going to hit the U.S. again and people are going to be shocked by the magnitude of the disaster,” said Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
[U.S. coastline vulnerability to hurricanes is growing to unprecedented levels]

The Associated Press reports Florida’s coastal communities have added 1.5 million people and almost a half-million new homes since 2005, the last time there was an onslaught of storms.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that by 2020, the U.S. coastal population will have reached 134 million people, 11 million more than in 2010.

“Hurricane damage and destruction is a direct function of how much accumulated wealth there is,” Pielke said. “We’ve put a lot of stuff along the coast. If we’re in this 10-year drought, loss potentials in some places may now be two times higher than it was a decade ago.”

Experts are conflicted as to whether residents — after a long break from dealing with hurricanes — will be well-prepared when the next storm threatens.

Kim Klockow, a visiting scientist with NOAA who studies meteorology and social behavior, said one major concern “is that communities might not be as practiced in getting prepared simply because they haven’t had to do it in a while.”

But she said she doesn’t think residents will tune the storm threat out. “I’m not sure if the long period of calm will make them less concerned,” Klockow added.

Gina Eosco, a social scientist who works with National Weather Service through the consulting firm Eastern Research Group, agrees with Klockow. “Coastal residents are savvy,” she said. “They understand that by living on the coast they are taking some risk. An individual does not necessarily need direct experience to decide to evacuate or prepare for a hurricane.”

Still, Pielke said consequences are inevitable for out-of-practice communities. “You can do all the talking and planning you want, but until you go through a hurricane, you don’t know what you’re up against,” he said. “The lessons of inexperience are pretty costly.”

[Why Florida’s record-setting hurricane drought portends danger]

Eosco offered this advice: “I cannot overstate the importance of preparing before a storm happens. This starts with a conversation. Each resident with experience should share it with their new neighbors.”

7 States are now recovering from severe drought conditions

California and parts of the Southwestern United States have now endured a fifth consecutive year of drought.

While these areas and the country are far from being drought free, near record-strength El Niño rains over the winter and fall of last year alleviated drought conditions considerably. A few states that were drought-stricken just last year are no longer in drought.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed drought levels estimated as of the week ended July 4 and as of early July last year from the U.S. Drought Monitor. There are currently only three states with widespread severe to exceptional drought conditions. To find the states that recovered most from drought, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed improvements compared with other states engulfed in drought at this time last year.

These are the seven states recovering from drought.

1. Oregon
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -83.7 percentage points
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 0.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 83.7%

In early July of last year, 83.7% of Oregon land was in a state of severe to extreme drought. By its peak in the late summer months, severe drought covered 100% of state land. Above-average temperatures and record low snowpack exacerbated the drought. Over the last six months, however, the state has made a full recovery. Thanks to heavy precipitation, severe drought conditions are entirely absent from Oregon today. The 83.7 percentage point decrease was the largest such improvement in the country.

Nevertheless, concerns remain over the future of Oregon’s water supply. Water levels at many reservoirs remain below full capacity, and abnormally dry conditions have returned to the state. According to Rippey, the dryness is a warning that drought conditions may return across the Oregon and the Northwest.

2. Nevada
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -54.4 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 21.7%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 76.1%

Nevada is one of many Western states ravaged by severe drought conditions over the past five years. More than half of the state was in severe drought from the summer of 2012 through the beginning of this year. In early 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared most of Nevada to be a disaster area. However, heavy precipitation brought on by a strong El Niño over the past year has helped alleviate much of the state’s drought. The area of land in severe drought fell by 54.4 percentage points., the second largest improvement in the country. Nevertheless, 22% of Nevada land area remains in severe drought, the third largest such share of any state.

3. Washington
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -45.8 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 0.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 45.8%

Washington has recently come out of one of its worst droughts on record. Like many states, strong storms brought on by El Niño helped alleviate much of the drought in Washington. Unlike many of the Western states stricken with drought, however, agriculture and wildlife suffered most from the drought. Even while nearly 46% of Washington was in severe drought in early July of last year, just 19% of residents lived in these areas. Nevertheless, the consequences for the state’s agricultural industry have been massive, reaching at least $336 million, according to a Washington State Department of Agriculture report.

Despite the strong recovery, drought conditions in Washington may soon resurface, according to Rippey. Currently, 100% of the state is abnormally dry.

 

4. Idaho
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -44.7 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 0.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 44.7%

About one year ago, 44.7% of Idaho land was in severe drought. Over the past year, however, heavy rainfall and snow helped alleviate all severe drought conditions across the state. As a result, after the fourth largest improvement in the country, no areas in the state are today in severe drought. Idaho is one of many states to benefit from strong El Niño storms last winter. According to the National Resources Conservation Service, precipitation in some parts of the state during December of last year was almost twice as heavy as normal.

 

5. California
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -35.6 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 59.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 94.6%

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in state history. Almost 60% of California land with nearly 30 million residents is in severe to exceptional drought, the most of any state. It is the only state where exceptional drought still persists. Still, this level of drought is a considerable improvement from July of last year, when 95% of the state was in severe to extreme drought. The 35.6 percentage point change was the fifth largest improvement of any state.

To deal with the drought, now in its fifth year, California imposed a statewide 25% reduction in urban water consumption in April 2015. With the improved conditions, water restrictions have since been scaled back across the state. The drought is far from over, however, and statewide restrictions may be reinstated if rainfall is too low or water use becomes too high. Lower-than-average rainfall is widely expected next year brought on by the weather pattern La Niña.

6. Utah
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -26.8 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 0.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 26.8%

About 27% of Utah was engulfed in severe drought in early July of last year, among the highest levels of drought in the country at that time. As stream flows neared record lows, numerous Utah cities in the state imposed daytime watering restrictions. Thanks to a particularly wet spring, however, today there are no areas of severe drought in the state. Drought conditions in Utah improved over the past four years from a peak drought level that had 72% of Utah in severe to extreme drought conditions. At this level of drought, crop or pasture losses are likely, and water shortages and restrictions are common. About 49% of the state remains in abnormally dry conditions — the lowest level of drought severity — slightly more than the 41% national land in abnormally dry conditions.

7. Arizona
> Change in severe drought coverage:
 -16.6 ppt.
> Pct. severe drought 2016: 8.0%
> Pct. severe drought 2015: 24.6%

Severe drought conditions covered nearly 25% of Arizona’s land mass in early July 2015. The water level at Lake Mead, one of the state’s primary sources of water, hit its lowest point in the reservoir’s history — since the completion of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s. Anticipating that drought conditions would persist, the state planned for water rationing last year. Thanks to heavy precipitation in the winter months, however, Arizona’s drought levels have significantly improved.

Today, 8.0% of Arizona’s land is in severe drought, 16.6 percentage points less than levels during last July and the seventh largest improvement in the country over that time. Further relief may come during monsoon season — a period from mid-June to late September with heavy storms that typically account for close to half of the state’s annual rainfall.

More on states recovering from drought

During periods of severe or — worse — exceptional levels of drought, crop or pasture losses are likely, and water shortages and restrictions are common. During times of exceptional drought, these conditions are intensified and water shortages are considered water emergencies.

 

Even before the current multi-year drought, these and many other states in the region have found ways of coping with regular cycles of wet and dry seasons. Water systems such as reservoirs have been essential for many years. In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Brad Rippey, agricultural meteorologist at the USDA, explained, “Without managed water, we couldn’t support the population or the agriculture that we have in the western United States.” Especially in the far West Coast states, he added, “you have to get through the summer on what falls during the winter.”

Drought conditions peaked in 2012, when close to 50% of the continental United States was engulfed in at least severe drought. As a result of heavy precipitation in the fall, winter and spring, the level of severe drought in late June fell to approximately 4% of the country — the lowest level since October 2010. “For the West as a whole it was certainly the best winter we had seen since the last time we had El Niño in 2009-10 or the following year,” Rippey said.

Compared with other weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, which are often in the news, drought is a very slow-emerging — and slow-ending — environmental feature. The effects of abnormally dry weather often do not appear until well after drought has become significantly entrenched. Also, year-over-year improvements such as the recent El Niño rains, while considerable windfalls for area residents, are far short of what is needed to return water systems to normal or restore the damaged landscape.

For example, the Washington State Department of Agriculture estimated the industry’s loss due to drought at $336 million. Water storage systems are also still well below historical averages throughout regions covered in drought. The country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead — now famous for its “bathtub rings” — is at 37% capacity, the lowest level on record. There has also been die-off of trees in the western United States. The U.S. Forest Service estimated that in the southern Sierra Nevada, there are approximately 66 million dead trees. These die-offs, largely caused by drought, dramatically increase the risk of wildfire.

Abnormally dry conditions, which register as the lowest level of drought on the Drought Monitor maps, have reemerged in parts of the Northwest in recent months. Rippey noted that abnormal dryness often serves as a warning that drought may be returning. “We’re headed back toward La Niña – cool water in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific – later this year. La Niña typically leads to drought expansion in the U.S., although not always in the same places.”

To identify the states with improving drought conditions, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the percentage of land area in severe to exceptional drought from the U.S. Drought Monitor as of the weeks ended July 4, 2016 and July 6, 2015. The states are ranked from the smallest to largest percentage point change for the year. To be considered, a state needed to have at least 20% of its land area in severe to exceptional drought conditions at this time last year.