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Farmers await busy storm season

An early forecast calls for 23 named tropical storms and five hurricanes.

John McCurry, Managing Editor

May 17, 2024

5 Min Read
Hurricane Season
Although they can provide much-needed rain, tropical storms sometimes pose potential threat to farmers.lisatop/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Climate experts in the Delta region are somewhat skeptical about the recent robust 2024 hurricane season predictions released by Colorado State University weather watchers. CSU forecasts 23 named tropical storms with 11 advancing to hurricane status and five to major hurricane levels.  

The number and nature of these storms will likely have growers keeping a close eye on meteorological developments this summer and fall. 

However, these experts also note the potential is indeed there for an active storm season, which could threaten ag with the usual suspects of intense rainfall, high winds, storm surge and waterlogged soil. 

In its annual early forecast, CSU researchers note that current El Nino conditions are likely to transition to La Nina conditions this summer and fall, leading to hurricane-favorable wind shear conditions.  

Sea surface temperatures (SST) in the eastern and central Atlantic are at record warm levels and will likely remain above average through the hurricane season, according to CSU. 

Early forecasts questioned 

“The April forecast from CSU, because it is so early, has been shown to have the least skill when compared to forecasts issued in later months,” said Mike Brown, a Mississippi State University professor of meteorology and climatology, who also serves as the state’s climatologist. “Just because a storm becomes strong, it does not mean it will make landfall. Nevertheless, depending upon the timing of a landfalling hurricane in Mississippi, or a storm that transects Mississippi, it could be devastating.” 

Paul Miller, an assistant professor at LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, is also a long-time observer of weather patterns.  

One of the methods his organization uses to anticipate North Atlantic hurricane activity is to compare current SST anomalies such as unusually hot or cold-water temperatures around the world to previous years.  

“Years with similar SST anomaly patterns to 2024 might plausibly exhibit similar levels and locations of hurricane activity,” Miller said. “Right now, 2024 most resembles 2010, 1973, 1966, 2005, and 1998 (in that order). As many will recall, 2005 hosted strong Gulf hurricanes like Rita and Katrina.” 

David Holt, associate professor of geography in the School of Coastal Resilience at The University of Southern Mississippi, described the CSU as surprisingly high. Checking the record books, he said the most storms with names was 28 in 2005, the year of Katrina and Wilma. Prior to that, the highest in any year was 19. 

“The way I always like to teach it in class, is when you look at these forecasts, I use American football scores as an example,” he said. “Looking at football scores of 14, 7 and 3, 14 is the average number of named storms, with any storm over 35 miles per hour getting named. Seven is the number of hurricanes on average and three is the number of major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher). This forecast (CSU’s) has 23, 11 and five. That’s a pretty heavy forecast.” 

Drought devastated pine trees 

Brown advised growers to closely monitor tropical activity near the harvest season to ensure crops can be harvested prior to any strong winds or flood-producing rains. He also has other worries resulting from last year’s statewide drought in Mississippi. 

“Of greater concern to me this year is the number of dead or dying pine trees, estimated to be around 12.5 million across the state, that were infested with pine beetles while they were stressed last fall due to the drought,” he said. “A wind event as large as a hurricane could down millions of trees, disrupting electrical grids, transportation routes and severely damaging infrastructure and housing.” 

Holt said Mississippi is emerging from the drought, but noted the irony that tropical storms can be beneficial because they typically provide needed water for the Southeast and help manage overland flow.  

“I joke with my students that it seems like most hurricanes go up to the Ohio Valley to die, but that drops water in Ohio and that goes all the way down to the coast,” he said. “Some of the big chunks of rain from tropical storms fill our reservoirs, so in a way, we want tropical storms. We just don’t want the wind and storm surge.” 

There has been considerable debate among weather observers and the public as to whether the hurricane season no longer adheres to its traditional bounds of early June through November. It is not uncommon, Miller said, to see weak tropical disturbances in late May. 

“In fact, May storms formed in four consecutive years between 2018-2021,” he said. “While warmer oceans temperatures can conceivably support more frequent May storms, and perhaps late-fall hurricanes as well, such storms must also contend with seasonally unconducive conditions in the atmosphere that obscure the boost they might get from warmer SSTs. For instance, the amount of available atmospheric moisture and wind shear are also factors that tend to limit tropical cyclone intensity on the margins of the traditional June-November hurricane season.” 

Holt said another byproduct of last year’s drought was that it hurt the crawfish industry, resulting in soaring prices. That was driven by the lack of tropical storms making landfall. 

“The problem with a high forecast like this, from a farming standpoint, you want rain, but flooding can be catastrophic to a lot of our agricultural products,” he said. “Our concern now is with too many tropical storms, or a major storm dropping too much rain.” 

How prepared is the region for a gauntlet of major storms? Miller said previous active hurricane seasons have provided Louisiana with lessons in storm preparation.  

“The extremely active hurricane season during 2020, as well as Ida’s landfall in 2021, have provided both residents and emergency managers with valuable experience interpreting forecasts and coordinating disaster response efforts,” Miller said. “Prior to Hurricane Laura in 2020, the last major (Category 3 to 5) storm to hit Louisiana was Hurricane Rita in 2005, so the recent experience dealing with storms is somewhat of a silver lining going into 2024.” 

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